Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Back in 2008, Barack Obama inadvertently warned America about people like Conor Lamb, the upstart 33-year-old Democrat who is on the cusp of victory this week in a Pennsylvania congressional race.
“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion,” the future president bemoaned to his wealthy San Francisco donors about Pennsylvania’s working-class denizens.
Lamb leads in Pennsylvania’s 18th district by 627 votes over Republican Rick Saccone, and he got there by, among other things, putting a photo of himself shooting an AR-15 in his campaign ads and by openly discussing his Catholic faith on the campaign trail.
Literally, Lamb clung to guns and religion to take down Saccone, the hangdog Republican candidate who projected all the vigor of a wilted salad in his own campaign. Sure, you can try heaping dressing on it and pretend it’s fine, but you would have preferred fresh lettuce.
Yes, Obama warned us. Of course, he was thinking of Republicans at the time, trying to explain the Democratic Party’s travails among working class and rural voters.
Ten years later, Democrats have adopted a new strategy: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. By embracing Lamb, the Democrats did what they had to do in a district Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016: they ran a candidate who sounded an awful lot like one of Obama’s bitter Keystone gun clingers.
But there is something interesting about a political party, which suffered mightily at every political level from Obama’s rampage through rural America, turning to the very kind of person – gun toting and religious – Obama once abandoned. Lamb didn’t face a primary for this seat because of the circumstances, but if he had it is doubtful his first ad would’ve featured him holding an AR-15. The resistance, as much as they celebrate his win, might not have allowed a candidacy like Lamb’s to flourish if given a more progressive alternative. The Conor Lambs of the world are likely to be the exception in the Democratic Party, not the rule.
This is not to take anything away from Lamb, who ran a great race by, as CNN’s Van Jones put it during a segment on election night, breaking the “ideological stranglehold” extreme liberals have had on the Democratic Party since Obama beat John McCain.
And it’s not to downplay the warning Republican congressional candidates should take away: if there’s any significant suburb in your district, it’s time to batten down the hatches and prepare for an unfriendly turnout matrix.
Lamb’s victory was propelled in part by improving in Allegheny County, the suburban part of the district, over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 result by almost 20 points. Similarly, 300,000 Democrats – mostly in suburban areas – turned out in Virginia’s governor’s race last November to sink Republican Ed Gillespie, despite having no history of voting in off-year elections.
Republican pundits can try to sugarcoat the outcome all they want (yes, there are local circumstances here that made a difference, including the incumbent congressman resigning because he asked his mistress to have an abortion!) but clearly, in race after race, suburban areas are swinging away from the GOP because some voters, even in the midst of a great economy, aren’t happy with President Donald Trump’s bearing in office.
For Republicans, it is time to get used to life after Hillary, and to the prospect of unlikely voters who aren’t interested in what you have to say showing up at the polls.
The Democrats would be wise to embrace more candidates like Lamb, who aren’t openly hostile to people who like Cracker Barrel more than Crate & Barrel. We’ll see if their congressional nominees in other races match the district the way Lamb did in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, or if Democratic primary voters revert to supporting extremely liberal candidates who are culturally out of touch with working class voters.
And we’ll see if Republicans will finally learn the lesson that candidate quality matters. Voters want something crisper than the wilted salad the GOP served up in Pennsylvania, no matter how much dressing outside groups (or even the President) slop on it.