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Lesson of Pennsylvania: Democrats might succeed, if they can tolerate centrist candidates

Conor Lamb
Supporters of Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania&#39;s 18th Congressional District hold signs during his election night party in Canonsburg, Pa. A razor&#39;s edge separated Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone early Wednesday in their closely watched special election in Pennsylvania.

There's no way around it — the GOP's failure to easily hold its seat in the special election for Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District on Tuesday is a loss for the party.

But the seat wouldn't have been competitive at all if not for the Democratic candidate's decision to buck his own party on key questions. Even after the tragic mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., Conor Lamb declined to back new gun control measures. He personally opposes abortion and supported President Trump's proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum. Lamb, who was not nominated in a primary but at a state convention, even said he wouldn't back efforts to keep House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in her leadership post.

Put another way, Lamb is the type of conservative Democrat progressives want purged from the party.

To replicate his success, Democrats will need to nominate candidates whose ideological orientations fit the districts in which they're running. But that's already proving to be a challenge. In the party's primary for Texas' 7th Congressional District, progressives are rallying around Laura Moser, motivated by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's efforts to undermine her bid in order to eliminate someone they identified as an unfeasible general election candidate.

The party cannot agree on whether pro-life Democrats should receive endorsements and resources, even in conservative districts where pro-life stances are more of an asset than a liability. In California, veteran Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., earned significantly fewer votes at the state party convention than her long shot progressive primary challenger, failing to secure an endorsement. At Netroots Nation last August, grassroots progressive activists loudly booed centrism.

Aftershocks of the battle between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in 2016 are still reverberating nationally for Democrats, pitting the establishment and progressives against one another in races around the country. If the party tips the scales in favor of more electable candidates, it risks inciting outrage from progressives. But if it stays on the sidelines, it risks allowing the hard line base to elect progressives with little chance of competing in general election match-ups in more conservative districts.

With much of their base fixated on demanding ideological purity, nominating more Conor Lambs won't come easily for Democrats. To actually retake the House, they may need to retake their own party.