PITTSBURGH — Conor Lamb weathered $10 million in attack ads cartoonishly calling the Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania’s special election a member of Nancy Pelosi’s liberal “flock.”
Now other Democratic hopefuls are looking to adopt Lamb’s strategy — he repeatedly and bluntly disavowed the Democratic leader — in their own competitive races. It raises the prospect of a slate of Democratic hopefuls running against the party’s House leader as they try to neutralize one of the GOP’s go-to attacks — a pillar of Republicans’ plan to keep the House majority in November.
A half-dozen Democratic House members and candidates told POLITICO in interviews that they had been closely monitoring how Lamb handled the Pelosi attack. In one notable ad, the 33-year-old Marine faced the camera and called the claim that he’s a clone of the Democratic leader “a big lie. I’ve already said on the front page of the newspaper that I don’t support Nancy Pelosi.”
Lamb, who faced Republican Rick Saccone on Tuesday, currently leads in a district that President Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016, though the race hasn’t officially been called. Even moderate success in other Trump strongholds would likely flip the House to Democrats.
“If we’re going to take the majority, it’s going to be because we win districts like that,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), a vocal critic of current leadership. “Running against Nancy Pelosi is going to help you a lot more than running with her.”
“I think everyone’s watching what Conor Lamb’s doing, and I hope they’re taking notes,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.).
Moulton said he didn’t mean all Democrats should automatically spurn Pelosi; candidates need to read the mood of their districts and decide their own path, he said. But Moulton, who canvassed with Lamb over the final weekend of the race, has called for new leadership in the Democratic Conference as he’s traveled the country recruiting and campaigning for fellow military veterans to run for Congress as Democrats.
So far, House Democrats’ campaign arm hasn’t punished candidates for snubbing Pelosi. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which Pelosi oversees, ran television and digital ads on Lamb’s behalf, quietly sent more than $400,000 to the state Democratic Party and celebrated Lamb’s apparent victory.
With Lamb expected to prevail narrowly, Democrats are predicting that others will parrot Lamb’s tactics and run against the party’s leader in the House.
A campaign manager for a Democratic candidate in a Republican-held district, granted anonymity to candidly discuss party strategy, said there’s a “100 percent chance that we’ll see more rejection of Pelosi from [Democratic] candidates going forward.”
“Two things will happen: More Democrats are going to say they don’t support Pelosi, and Republicans will keep airing these Pelosi TV ads,” predicted another Democratic strategist who works on House races. “The ads are unavoidable, but the question is, do they work anymore?”
Democrats on Capitol Hill said they’re already hearing from other candidates seeking counsel about whether they should take the same tack as Lamb.
“If you say you’re not going to vote for her, it actually helps you because you look independent, which is very powerful in this environment,” said a Democratic lawmaker who has advised other candidates to employ the same strategy.
Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, said the outcome in Pennsylvania showed how stale and ineffective the Republican attack has become.
“The idea that an entire midterm will be about who serves as minority leader is preposterous,” he said. “This midterm will be about this president and his party.”
Other supporters of Pelosi have said they’re confident she’ll have the votes to become speaker if Democrats win the House this year, regardless of how candidates in tough races position themselves.
Republicans, however, argue that Pelosi’s toxicity will still weigh on the party. National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt said Lamb was “forced to go up on air, attacking” Pelosi, “so if that’s not proof of how toxic she will be for Democrats this cycle, I don’t know what is.”
It’s unclear whether other candidates will have the liberty that Lamb enjoyed to disavow the Democratic leader. Unlike other candidates who have to win Democratic primaries — and risk antagonizing base voters if they campaign as centrists — Lamb was selected to run by party committees.
Still, other Democratic candidates are following Lamb’s lead.
Danny O’Connor, who is running in a special election this summer to replace former Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), told POLITICO in an interview this past weekend that he won’t support Pelosi because he believes “we need changes in leadership on both sides of the aisle.”
Like Lamb, O’Connor is running in a GOP-tinted district — Trump carried the central Ohio district by 11 points in 2016 — and is using questions about Pelosi to rail against leadership in both parties.
Paul Davis, another Democrat seeking a GOP-held open seat in Kansas, has been running this playbook from the start of his campaign. He launched his bid for Congress last August by promising not to support Pelosi, calling for “new leadership in both parties.”
In an interview before the election in Pennsylvania, Davis said a Lamb victory “could certainly get more candidates thinking” about distancing themselves from Pelosi.
“Candidates have to size up their districts and what they’re hearing from people before they make that decision, but it’s possible there’s more” who rebuff Pelosi, Davis said.
Several members of the House Democratic Caucus said Lamb’s apparent triumph in the deep-red district showed the anti-Pelosi tack won’t work.
“It lacked the power they assumed it would have, both in terms of Nancy Pelosi and the tax cut scheme,” said Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “Going into the general [election], they thought those two issues were killers.”
The “Pelosi problem” became such an issue last summer following Jon Ossoff’s narrow loss in the special election in Georgia that several Democrats openly pondered trying to replace Pelosi mid-Congress. Calls for a regime change eventually died down, but some Democrats say privately they will push for new leadership in November — whether the party wins a majority of House seats in the midterms or not.
For those Democrats, the more candidates that come out against Pelosi — and win their races — the better chances they have of forcing the California Democrat, who has led the caucus for 15 years, to step down.
“The horse is out of the barn now. It’s already happening,” said one House Democrat.
Not every candidate is ready to declare they’re opposed to Pelosi — but it’s clearly a topic on their minds.
Jason Rittereiser, an attorney who’s running in a GOP-held district in Washington state that Hillary Clinton carried, said it’s “too early” for him to rule out voting against the Democratic leader. But he said he thinks there’s a “void in the Democratic Party.”
“It’s clear from the results out of Pennsylvania that voters are ready for a new generation of leadership in Congress,” Rittereiser said. “If I had the honor to go to Congress, I’ll vote for a leader who can best build coalitions and lead our party towards making progress again.”
“Right now,” Rittereiser added, “I don’t know who that is.”