Conor Lamb’s triumph in Trump country is being heralded by conservative Democrats as a major victory in their ongoing turf battle with the far left — and an object lesson on the kind of candidates the party needs to promote and win to take the House in November.
The 33-year-old Marine veteran personally opposed abortion (while backing abortion rights), described a $15 minimum wage as “high” and ran an ad showing him doing target practice with a machine gun — none of which sit well with the ascendant Democratic base.
“He didn’t run on an identity politics, one-size fits all message,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), co-chairman of the Blue Dog PAC, the fundraising arm for the conservative Democratic coalition. “He ran on the Blue Dog message.”
For the Blue Dogs, Lamb’s successful center-left campaign is proof that the Democratic Party’s “big tent” mentality is still a winning electoral strategy, despite an aggressive push from liberals for candidates that more closely adhere to the progressive purity made popular by the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
But while liberals have praised Lamb’s win, they’ve also been quick to caution that his message shouldn’t be copied by Democrats across the House map.
The scramble by both moderates and liberals to ascribe broader meaning to Lamb’s victory is just the latest volley in the ideological battle that has been raging within the party since the 2016 presidential primary.
Centrists want party leaders to take notice of Lamb’s upset with an eye toward bolstering similar candidates in upcoming races where moderates are running in primaries against more liberal challengers.
Blue Dogs still feel burned by the party’s decision to abandon one of their own — Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, a co-chair of the coalition and one of the most conservative Democrats in the caucus. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has refused to endorse the seven-term congressman, who opposes abortion rights and voted against Obamacare, as he struggles to fend off a progressive challenger.
“There’s a huge contradiction here,” Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a moderate Democrat who is not a Blue Dog, said of the DCCC’s embrace of Lamb while snubbing Lipinski. “If we are seen as enforcers of rigid orthodoxy, then our party will be a lot less attractive [to voters].”
The two sides will square off in Lipinski’s primary Tuesday, but that’s just the start. Blue Dog-backed candidates are running against candidates from the liberal wing in several Republican-leaning districts across the country, from Nebraska to Pennsylvania to New Jersey.
Moderate Democrats say the upset in Pennsylvania shows it’s obvious Lamb’s playbook is what other candidates should mimic in those districts. “This is not a new thought,” said Connolly. “That’s exactly what we did in ’06 and ’08,” when Democrats won and kept the majority.
Facing a barrage of GOP attacks deeming him “Nancy Pelosi’s little lamb,” Lamb went up with an ad underscoring his opposition to the Democratic leader. Other candidates in red-tinted districts are expected to replicate the strategy in the coming months.
Lamb‘s focus on “kitchen table” issues that mattered to voters in the district, not a nationalized progressive message, is why he was able to win in a district President Donald Trump carried by 20 points, Blue Dogs argued.
Lamb ran against the Republican tax law, deeming it a corporate giveaway. But he mostly trained his ire on Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — hammering the GOP leader for wanting to overhaul entitlement programs — and not Trump.
Lamb opposed calls for stricter gun laws after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., instead endorsing a more moderate push to update and expand the background checks system. He said a mandatory $15 minimum wage, a top priority for liberals, “sounds high.”
And Lamb embraced Trump’s plan to impose steep tariffs, a controversial idea that has divided both Republicans and Democrats but appealed to union workers his steel-heavy district.
“I think it’s a major psychological lift,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) said of Lamb’s victory. While not a Blue Dog, Bustos represents a Trump-won district and has been one of the party’s most vocal advocates for an inclusive electoral strategy heading into the midterms.
“I think if we run people who are far left in swing districts or districts that might lean a little bit Republican, we’re not going to be successful,” she added.
Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a Rust Belt Democrat who ran against Pelosi for leadership in 2016, echoed that sentiment. “At the end of the day,” he said, “I hope that whoever our nominees are, we let them be who they are. And run the kind of races they think is best for their district.”
Some liberals are doing what they can to tamp down the victory lap moderates are taking post-Pennsylvania.
“People [who] say this is the direction all of us should take are kind of missing where the energy is coming from,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He mentioned issues such as universal health care, the minimum wage and regulating Wall Street as being especially important to base voters.
Grijalva didn’t diminish Lamb’s victory but also said it wasn’t the golden ticket that would deliver other districts that Democrats need to win back the House.
“I think for the caucus, his victory is a momentum builder,” Grijalva said. “But not necessarily the blueprint that’s going to carry us to the majority.”
But some liberals have also been quick to claim Lamb’s upset as a triumph of their own, saying the populist undercurrents in his campaign — most notably hammering Republicans over entitlement reform and the tax bill — is exactly the message that will propel Democrats to victory this fall.
“Conor Lamb basically did no harm on economic issues,” said Adam Green, a leader of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
“Regardless of how progressive one thinks he is,” Green continued, “if Democrats can win in the district that Trump won by  points, there is zero excuse for running on corporate or conservative values in the dozens of districts that Hillary Clinton won or that Trump barely won.”
Green said his group and others aren’t shying away from taking on moderate Democrats in upcoming primaries, especially in districts that lean Republican.
In Nebraska’s 2nd district, the Blue Dogs have backed former Rep. Brad Ashford, who lost the seat in 2016 after one term. PCCC is supporting Kara Eastman, the leader of a poisoning prevention nonprofit who is running to the left of Ashford.
“Some would argue we need a Blue Dog, old white male to take back that seat,” Green said. “That’s where groups like ours are really going to battle with corporate Democrats or the Blue Dogs.”