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Conor Lamb fell short of a big Democratic endorsement for Senate but showed deep party support

Lamb has painted himself as the candidate most likely to recreate the coalition of voters that lifted Joe Biden to victory in Pennsylvania in 2020.

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D., Pa.) (left) earlier this month.
U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D., Pa.) (left) earlier this month.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania Democratic officials and activists showed a clear preference Saturday for U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb’s Senate candidacy, favoring him over the state’s sitting lieutenant governor even as he fell short of the formal endorsement his campaign had sought.

While Lamb didn’t get the two-thirds vote needed to win the endorsement of the Democratic State Committee, his first-place finish was a show of strength for his campaign ahead of the May primary. He has painted himself as the candidate most likely to re-create the coalition of voters that lifted Joe Biden to victory in Pennsylvania in 2020.

Lamb received 159 votes, 17 shy of what he would have needed for an endorsement on the final ballot. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman got 64 votes and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta got 42 votes. Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh did not make it to the second ballot after failing to get 15% of the vote on the first.

Lamb’s competitors still saw the lack of endorsement as a victory for them, after the centrist Democrat made a concerted push for the party nod. Earlier in the meeting of about 300 Democrats, about 50 supported a failed motion not to endorse in the primary at all, saying they didn’t want to influence whom voters choose to support.

Democrats unanimously endorsed state Attorney General Josh Shapiro for governor. Shapiro has effectively cleared the field. State Rep. Austin Davis got the endorsement for lieutenant governor, beating State Rep. Brian Sims.

» READ MORE: We're tracking the candidates running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania

National Democrats are watching Pennsylvania’s Senate race closely. It’s one of the most competitive in the country, likely their best chance to flip a seat in the chamber, and it could help determine which party has the majority after this year. Incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey isn’t seeking reelection.

While Lamb was widely expected to perform the best in the vote — his team had been conducting direct outreach to many committee members — party insiders thought that with four candidates, he’d likely fall short of the two-thirds threshold.

The vote is essentially a straw poll of Democrats from across the state — some of them well-known politicians, others local party insiders or activists. Committee members run and are elected to their seats. When the committee does endorse, it can mean help from a network of local Democrats across the state.

Democrats who have earned the committee endorsement have had varied success. Bob Casey got it over Ed Rendell in the 2002 governor’s race but lost the primary. Katie McGinty fell just short of it in the 2016 Senate race and won the primary.

Lamb has gradually been building support among parts of the party establishment, getting endorsements this month from the Philadelphia Building Trades and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.

» READ MORE: Kenney endorses Conor Lamb for Senate: ‘I wanna win.’

In brief remarks ahead of the vote, Lamb emphasized the high stakes of the race and again cast himself as the best equipped to beat Republicans in November. Lamb said that hurting Pennsylvanians “need us to win. Not just make a great speech. Not to be good on social media but go out there and get the votes to win.

“Please do not underestimate the depth of what we’re up against.” He reminded Democrats of his victories in Republican-friendly Western Pennsylvania congressional districts.

“You have the chance today to put fear in the hearts of Dr. Oz and David McCormick and that whole cast of characters because they don’t want to run against me again,” he said, referring to two GOP Senate candidates.

Kenyatta told Democrats not to vote based on fear.

“There’s some people who want you to vote for them because they think you ought to be scared,” Kenyatta said. “We aren’t running from anything. We’re Democrats. We are running for something and we will win for our values.”

» READ MORE: John Fetterman skipped a forum with Black clergy and some Democrats say he’s ducking scrutiny

For Fetterman, who has been seen as the early front-runner on his fund-raising advantage and grassroots support inside and outside the state, the vote confirmed his limited appeal among party insiders, but is unlikely to slow his own considerable momentum.

Kenyatta is gaining some traction in a race where he’s been seen as a long shot, and Arkoosh continues to struggle to take off.

“This race remains dynamic and competitive with months to go,” Arkoosh campaign spokeswoman Rachel Petri said. “And I’d caution anyone against making broad assumptions based on this small vote in January.”