WAYNESBURG, Pa. — Everyone in some way or another is going to get the results of the Pennsylvania House special election wrong.
Why? Because the story is not neat on a number of levels. First, it is complicated by optics and message: The young, charming Democratic candidate Conor Lamb is running like a Republican on matters from guns to getting rid of Nancy Pelosi. And sly as a fox, Lamb is not taking any firm stances on any other issues.
When your message is simply I am for new leadership and cleaning up Washington, and you look like you just walked out of an Orvis catalog, you are going to connect with voters on both sides of the aisle.
Second, Lamb never slams President Trump; why would he? Trump won this district by double digits. Lamb needs his voters to pull the lever for him, and so they need to trust that Lamb will be an independent warrior in Washington who is above party and politics.
A Conor Lamb supporter stands at a rally for Lamb, Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, at the Carpenters Training Center on March 6 in Collier Township, Pa. (Justin Merriman / Washington Examiner)
Everyone who knows Washington knows that this never really happens. When you are a (junior) member of a club of 435 members divided in two, that campaign mantra of independence gets washed away by the force of partisanship.
Third, none of Lamb's campaign signs say he is a Democrat. He is not part of the resistance, he does not call himself progressive, he doesn’t try to divide voters into different special interest groups or pit people against each other. If someone set out to do the opposite of everything Hillary Clinton and the Democrats did in 2016, he would run like Lamb is running.
And fourth, the establishment Republicans have embarrassed themselves with public hissy fits about Lamb's challenger, Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone — his lack of fundraising polish and his panache. You have to wonder if their bitterness towards this Western Pennsylvania candidate — whose military and diplomatic experience are impressive on paper and manifest in person — is deeply rooted in their persistent resentment of Trumpism.
While Lamb is a principled man in his service to his country and his work as a federal prosecutor, in this race, his guiding principle has been not saying much of anything. Even when former Vice President Joe Biden was here in Pittsburgh last week, Lamb said nothing of substance during his appearance with the always gregarious Biden.
Supporters of Conor Lamb, Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, listen as former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally for Lamb at the Carpenters Training Center on March 6 in Collier Township, Pa. (Justin Merriman / Washington Examiner)
As the national press descends on Western Pennsylvania in the final stretch of the race, the stories are all long on Lamb and short on Saccone — they are also long on stories about Republicans panicking, on Trump voters switching back to the Democrats, or on Republicans not motivated to show up.
They barely mention the seat they are both running for technically doesn’t exist anymore — since the state supreme court redrew the entire state and made a zombie out of this one.
They also barely mention that wherever Lamb runs in November (he has to date not said), he will likely face progressive primary challengers.
The truth is this race is tight not because of Donald Trump. It’s not because of Rick Saccone. It’s certainly not about a contrast of ideologies; they agree about almost everything.
It is about the Democrats getting a candidate who fits a district. But here is where it gets the most complicated: Lamb was not picked by primary voters, who tend to be to the most ideologically extreme wing of their party and the most energized. Instead, Lamb was picked by local Democratic committee people, most of whom in this district are older, white, and more pragmatic. They wanted to win.
So, even if Lamb wins on Tuesday, will Democrat primary voters be wise enough to support Lamb like candidates in primary races in districts where more center-right voters live?
Win or lose, there are particles of lessons for both parties in this race. The wise party will pick up the particles that matter; the other one will lose in November when it really counts.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.