Conor Lamb knows how to win Trump voters. Now he’s trying to do it for Joe Biden.
Lamb thinks Biden’s approach to winning over voters in a politically divided swath of western Pennsylvania should look a lot like his own, and he’s emerged as a top Biden surrogate.
:BEAVER, Pa. — Conor Lamb mingled with a group of electricians on a Saturday morning last month. As they sipped coffee and munched on doughnuts in the fall fresh air, he asked them to tune out the chaos of the 2020 election.
The freshman Democratic congressman and the union members were talking about Social Security and prescription-drug prices during a week in which President Donald Trump continued to undermine confidence in mail ballots with false claims of fraud and leveled fresh warnings about a looming threat of violence in America’s suburbs.
Lamb, who has a thin build, sandy brown hair, and a boyish smile, grabbed the microphone and told the workers who had gathered in the parking lot outside their union hall that they have a clear choice to make.
“The other side’s offering chaos. They’re offering civil war in America. Let’s make this real clear,” Lamb, 36, said as he stood on the back of a camper parked on the edge of the lot. “We’re offering more of your own money. Plus dentures and glasses and hearing aids. That sounds like a pretty good idea to me.”
The small crowd of burly electricians chuckled.
Lamb represents Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District, which covers conservative, blue-collar Beaver County and suburbs of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County. He’s staking his reelection on a slate of kitchen-table issues like expanding access to health care and protecting pensions — the same type of campaign that propelled him to an unlikely victory two years ago when he won a special election in a different district that Trump carried by 19 points.
His opponent Sean Parnell is making the opposite bet.
Parnell, a 41-year-old retired Army captain who earned a Bronze Star for valor, has built his campaign around attacking Lamb, who is also a veteran. He assails Lamb for working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for pledging to support gun owners while not advancing the NRA’s agenda, and for not criticizing quickly or loudly enough the looting that accompanied mostly peaceful protests after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. He often criticizes Lamb for voting to impeach Trump.
In a sense, each man mirrors the presidential candidates atop their party tickets, in a district that’s being closely watched as a bellwether for a state that could decide the election. Lamb thinks Joe Biden’s approach to winning over voters in this politically divided swath of Western Pennsylvania should look a lot like his own, and he’s emerged as a top surrogate for Biden. Lamb stood by Biden in Pittsburgh when he unveiled his economic recovery plan in July, and he led the campaign’s response in Pennsylvania to an explosive report last month that Trump called Americans who died at war “suckers” and “losers.” (Trump has denied that.)
“Biden campaigned for me when there weren’t a lot of people who believed I could win,” Lamb said during an interview on his front lawn in Mount Lebanon, one of the South Hills suburbs he represents. “And I got behind him early because I believe he’s the best candidate for Western Pennsylvania.”
Parnell declined to be interviewed.
Lamb’s relationship with the state’s labor unions has been critical to his success and could be vital to Biden’s hopes of outperforming Hillary Clinton in this part of the state. Biden spent much of his Amtrak train tour in Western Pennsylvania last week speaking with union workers and collecting endorsements from their locals. He even won the backing of the conservative operating engineers union, which Trump also sought.
“Labor unions think the same way military officers do,” said Lamb, who served as a judge advocate in the Marine Corps. “That you’re only as fast as your slowest Marine, that you’ve got to look out for the welfare of everybody, that no one gets left behind.”
In Congress, Lamb has advocated for labor priorities like infrastructure spending and the Butch Lewis Act, which would create a Pension Rehabilitation Administration within the Treasury Department and allow failing pension plans to borrow money to stay solvent. That initiative stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate after passing the House with bipartisan support.
Here in the parking lot outside the Beaver County electricians’ union hall, as wind whipped off the nearby Ohio River, Frank Snyder, a third-generation steelworker and the secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, expressed regret that organized labor didn’t do more to lift Clinton in this part of the state.
“All elections have what?” Snyder asked.
“Consequences!” the electricians shouted back through their face masks, in a call-and-response Snyder had clearly led before.
“What are the consequences of four years ago?” he asked rhetorically.
“Last night, we lost a real fighter,” Snyder went on, referring to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death the day before and Trump’s rush to fill her seat on the Supreme Court. “That’s a consequence.”
When tens of millions of dollars for television attack ads poured into the special election Lamb narrowly won in March 2018, it was union members, he said, who led a barrage of calls and door-knocking on his behalf.
“Labor leaders are always one of my first calls on an issue because I know that they represent the people who are there when the rubber meets the road, who are really in the trenches,” Lamb said.
Parnell, meanwhile, has tethered himself to Trump — appearing on stage with him at a rally just outside Pittsburgh last month and delivering a prime-time Republican National Convention speech in August. Parnell is betting that Republicans who voted for Trump in 2016 and then gave Lamb a chance will abandon him this year.
“With four more years, imagine what we can achieve by simply working with our president,” Parnell said in his convention speech.
The district, which was redrawn by the state Supreme Court after Lamb’s special election win, has yet to attract the flood of political spending Lamb saw two years ago. Both campaigns spent under $1 million each on the airwaves between June and September, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics. And so far, neither party’s House campaign arms, nor the main outside groups that boost the party’s candidates, has bought TV time.
Lamb had just purchased his grandmother’s house and was settling into his role as a federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh in 2017 when he learned that eight-term Rep. Tim Murphy had resigned after text messages revealed he pressured his partner to have an abortion. Many of Murphy’s constituents were conservative Trump voters, but the seat was open, and Lamb saw an opportunity.
“Conor’s decision to run was anything but the fulfillment of some strategy,” said Fred Thieman, a former U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh and one of Lamb’s mentors. “It was more like getting hit by lightning.”
During that campaign, Lamb talked about issues like the cost of prescription drugs. He didn’t talk much about Trump, even though the race was seen in national political circles as a referendum on the president.
He’s not dwelling on Trump this year, either. In a televised debate with Parnell last month, Lamb invoked Trump’s name only once, during an exchange about the president’s effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
Lamb also avoids mentioning the president in conversations with voters — a tack he thinks can work for Biden, too.
“I want them to tell me what’s important to them, what’s going on in their lives, what they want me to work on,” he said. “I don’t think a discussion of President Trump in that context is helpful, and I’ve noticed they almost never bring him up, either.”
In 2007, when President George W. Bush sent a surge of troops to Iraq, Lamb’s former high school and college classmates were being deployed. The military needed lawyers, too, so he joined the Marine Corps.
“I knew the Marines would be the toughest branch to join, and I kind of wanted to know if I could pass the test,” Lamb said.
Biden’s son Beau also served as a military lawyer. When the former vice president campaigned for Lamb two years ago, he paid him the ultimate compliment at a rally the week before the election, remarking that Lamb reminded him of his late son, who died from brain cancer.
“With Beau and with Conor, it’s about the other guy,” Biden said.
Parnell led an infantry platoon in Afghanistan during the hunt for Osama bin Laden and later chronicled his experience in a best-selling memoir. He often commends his soldiers' bravery.
“In the face of death, I saw ordinary Americans become heroes,” Parnell said during his RNC speech.
In 2010, Lamb was stationed at a base in Japan, where one of his first assignments was among the toughest of his career: prosecuting sexual-assault cases.
This was before the military started to take accusations of sexual assault more seriously. Charges were rarely filed, and when cases were prosecuted, they often resulted in acquittal. Lamb’s unit had been on a bad losing streak when he joined the team.
“Marines are told you don’t get to pick what your job is, but whatever it is, it’s going to be difficult, and we want you to be excellent at it,” Lamb said. “This assignment was the first time I got to live through that.”
With training on how to build and prosecute sexual-assault cases in the military justice system, Lamb and his team started getting convictions and gaining the trust of victims.
“A lot of it is common sense and listening, really listening to what the victim has to say and letting them know that you believe them and that you’re going to take it seriously and try to prove the truth,” Lamb said.
Last month, as the sun sank behind the trees that line Lamb’s yard in Mount Lebanon, he reminisced about a constituent he met two years ago in Washington, Pa.
The man’s career as a school custodian had ended abruptly when he tore cartilage in his shoulder while lifting heavy garbage cans to load a dumpster. He suffered lasting damage, but he managed to find other work. He told Lamb he was counting on Social Security when he retires. As their conversation ended, Lamb said, the man took out his big janitor key ring, grabbed Lamb’s hand, and pressed something into his palm. It was his dog tag from serving in Korea. He was a veteran, too.
“He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘When you get down there, don’t break your promise to us,’” Lamb recalled. “'Protect Social Security. It’s all I have.' I think about him all the time now.”