Until very recently, Bob Rogers, a retired coal miner in his seventies, thought his party was dead. Rogers, who flew Chinook helicopters in Vietnam before spending 43 years in the mines of western Pennsylvania, is a lifelong Democrat, but for a while now has worried that people like him had been forgotten by the party.
“They were strong union supporters and they’ve just dropped the ball in that respect,” he says.
But he was reinvigorated by Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old lawyer and former Marine from Pittsburgh who as of late Tuesday night was ahead in a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district.
Hours after polls closed, his lead was precariously narrow — just 847 votes more than Republican state representative Rick Saccone — but even a slim victory would have major implications: Donald Trump won this district by double digits in 2016.
Saccone, a social conservative who once bragged that he was “Trump before Trump was Trump,” was the beneficiary of a desperate multimillion dollar campaign staged by national Republicans, and yet Lamb managed to flip good portions of the district. The success gives hope to Democrats and intensifies concerns among Republicans about the November midterms.
By the standards of the party today, Lamb is an unorthodox Democrat. He devoted his campaign to connecting with blue-collar workers in southwestern Pennsylvania and their unions, largely steering clear of the Trump-era flashpoints — Russiagate, White House staff turnover — that have consumed the national conversation. He has spoken out against stricter gun control, was reticent on the subject of abortion and, most notably, has said that when he gets to Washington, he won’t back Nancy Pelosi as the party’s leader in the House of Representatives.
But this was precisely the chord he needed to hit in this southwestern Pennsylvania district, which Trump won with nearly 60% of the vote but where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly two to one. “It’s labor,” Rogers, the former miner, says simply when asked what matters to voters here. Workers like Rogers are old enough to remember the heyday of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, which built the infrastructure for contemporary social welfare in the U.S. They tend to resent the party’s embrace of economically centrist realpolitik over the last quarter-century. To them, Lamb was a breath of fresh air.
“It’s time for a change,” one elderly woman, who politely declined to give her name, said as she left the polls in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday. She voted for Lamb. “The old Democratic machine has been in power a little bit too long. All the insults and stuff that go on — we have no statesmen anymore. No one’s thinking about the constituents who put them in charge. It’s all about their salaries and their continued employment. When you lose a job, you lose a job!”
Because of how emphatically the region supported Trump in 2016, this special election took on outsized importance nationally. It was, many pundits said, a litmus test of Trumpism: that nebulous term that connotes a populism incubated in the forgotten economies of the Rust Belt. Had it survived nearly a year and a half of scandal, of false promises of a rejuvenated nation? (On the topic of the latter: Politico reported this week that Republicans abandoned their arguments citing the recent tax reform bill in the election, which they have previously touted as a boon for the middle class but which disproportionately benefits the country’s top earners.)
But find the archetypal voter in this model — the disaffected blue-collar worker whose job is now in Bangladesh — and he’ll likely tell you that the myth of a unanimous Trump frenzy in postindustrial America was to an extent just that — a myth. Indeed, the majority of voting Pennsylvania workers who spoke to TIME in the days leading up to the election affirmed they voted for Clinton, albeit reluctantly.
“It was the lesser of two evils: our choices were Crazy Trump and Lyin’ Hillary,” 70-year-old Jim Rawlings, a former miner, says. Rawlings was one of more than a hundred members of the United Mine Workers of America who turned out on Sunday for a union event backing Lamb. “Was that even a choice? It’s a shame in this country that’s all they could come up for to run for president.”
But most of these voters agree on something: that in recent years — some trace it to the Obama Administration; others go all the way back to Bill Clinton’s presidency — their party lost the thread. Union support, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid: these are the issues that the Democrats of western Pennsylvania considered the party’s bread and butter, and there was an abstract sense that they didn’t matter so much to the folks in Washington anymore.
They point to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in particular as a comedy of errors — an abject neglect, they say, of the Democratic Party’s blue-collar backbone. A cameo on “Broad City” or a chummy interview with Lena Dunham might play well with the Twitter-savvy millennial voter in Brooklyn, but for a Pennsylvania steelworker whose plant just shuttered, it was a foreign language. It didn’t help that in a call for renewable energy at a March 2016 town hall, Clinton said suggested that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” (It was a gaffe warped grotesquely out of context by the conservative press, but all the same, it stuck.)
“If they’re going to get rid of coal mines and get rid of pollution, if they’re gonna drop everybody from their jobs, then they need to have some system that picks those people up,” 73-year-old Carl Wade, another retired miner out rooting for Lamb, says. “That doesn’t exist. Medicare, Social Security — those things you rely on once you retire.”
Few of them seem to have ever seriously suspected that Trump would be a champion of social welfare, and even many of those who cast their ballot for him are now contrite.
“Yeah, I crossed party lines and voted for him,” one retired steelworker says on Tuesday as he heads into the pine-paneled dance hall of an old Washington County social club, where voting booths are set up. “It took me six years to realize that I made a mistake voting for Obama. It took me three months to realize I made a mistake voting for Trump.”
Lamb’s success is a much-needed vote of confidence in a Democratic Party that has grappled with its political identity in the wake of Clinton’s seismic upset in 2016. It all but ratifies the leftward tack embraced by a number of potential contenders for the 2020 presidential election. (Example: a bill for a single-payer healthcare system introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders earned the support of a quarter of the Democrats in the Senate in the fall, among them Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey; two years earlier, Sanders couldn’t secure even one.)
But in western Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Democratic voters weren’t worried about national implications or the next election. There was still an air of populist cynicism, but it was subdued. “You really can’t trust ‘em,” one former mill worker said, “but I’ll put it this way: I like what Lamb’s doing, I’m always gonna vote regardless, and he’s my pick of the two.”
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