The official result has yet to be confirmed but Connor Lamb and the Democratic Party are already celebrating their slender victory in a district Trump won by 20 points. The race should never have been close for Republicans in the first place and yet, they lost. The ‘Blue Wave’ is sweeping the GOP aside. More Republicans in Congress ponder whether to jump ship or try to weather the oncoming storm while liberals and progressives cheer for the Blue Wave to sweep through America.
Despite the cheer, there are many lessons to be learned from both victory and defeat and both sides are still facing big problems in future elections, both local and national. Ironically, the victorious Democrats are just as divided and uncertain as the Republicans are and thus, Pennsylvania highlights both the opportunities and the challenges to come.
The Republicans are now rightly nervous for the mid-terms. The fact that a district that is not only safe Republican territory but also heavily in favor of Trump went for a Democrat is sending panic throughout the ranks. The last two elections were practically uncontested by Democrats, but now the district has turned blue.
The Republicans threw everything they could at the contest. They spent millions of dollars in the area to get people voting for Saccone. Trump came down personally to rally the voters and predictably made it all about himself with Rick Saccone as an afterthought. Rick Saccone described himself as ‘Trump before Trump was Trump’, hoping that being a pro-Trump cheerleader would be enough.
The big problem was that Connor Lamb was no ordinary Democratic opponent. His career as a military officer and a federal prosecutor who helped lock up drug dealers already made it difficult to attack him, but his policy positions also blunted attacks. Lamb is pro-life and pro-gun, holding positions that establishment conservatives would recognize and even support at different times. Crucially, Lamb promised to be no friend to the Democratic leadership, especially Nancy Pelosi who remains a hate figure amongst conservatives.
As a result, Lamb has narrowly snatched a victory by essentially being a right-wing Democrat. He has given Democrats in Republican states and crucial swing areas a guide to winning. But Democrats shouldn’t be too quick to crow or celebrate.
For one thing, Lamb will be under pressure to perform and stand by his promises which will make the Democratic leadership nervous. Lamb is an example of the virtues and challenges of supporting ideologically diverse candidates, particularly when said candidate is likely to break party lines and vote against the national opinion.
Lamb is also an example of an argument that is steadily gaining ground: the need for a younger and more diverse leadership. The majority of the Democratic leadership is over-50 and mostly white, something that is at odds with a large swathe of their supporters and voters. Neither Schumer nor Pelosi inspires much confidence with the former caving in over Dreamers following the government shutdown and the latter being too controversial for Republicans to do deals with. Some might reasonably why a younger generation, more in tune with the pulse of the nation and more ideologically diverse, isn’t in charge by now.
The biggest issue concerns the national message. The local campaigns are being increasingly influenced by the national conversation, by what’s happening on the grand scale. Trump is front and center in people’s minds as expected and as such, his actions count for a lot in local elections. He might rally Republican voters but he also inspired Democratic voters to turn out.
But being purely anti-Trump and following #TheResistance can only do so much in the long run. Taking a stand against Trump is always welcome, but the Democratic Party needs much more to inspire the nation as a whole. They need to balance the negative with the positive, to encourage people to believe in their vision and to shake off the lies and misinformation.
If Democrats need an example, Britain has an under-stated example in the 2017 election. Starting 20 points behind Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn surged in the polls in just a few weeks. For all his flaws (and there are many of them), Corbyn struck a hopeful and positive tone, refusing to engage in mud-slinging and name-calling. Like Bernie Sanders, he tapped into the deep dissatisfaction and promised a better future for all. It wasn’t quite enough to win but it was enough to stage an upset and it left Theresa May and her team floundering.
The mid-terms will be crucial for both sides and Democrats need to keep up the pressure if they have any hope of regaining control of Congress. It seems more than likely that they will, but managing expectations is important. If they fall short in November after promising a blue wave, then the party will tear itself apart.
Whatever happens, they can only avoid their internal issues for so long. Sooner or later, they’ll need to figure out their game plan for post-2018. Can they reconcile Bernie Sander’s radical ideas with the moderates? Can progressives accept moderation in the short-term? Should they stay in the middle of the road or adopt the path towards populism? If they don’t answer such questions and let the problem go unsolved, 2020 will be just as hellish for them as it could be for Republicans.
The victory in Pennsylvania is a sign of hope, but it also heralds the problems yet to come.