Paul Ryan and Donald Trump are running scared. After the Republican candidate who ran with the ardent backing of the Republican Speaker of the House and the Republican president lost a special election for a Pennsylvania congressional seat in a district that was so Republican-friendly that Donald Trump won it by 20 points and the former GOP congressman regularly ran without opposition, the men who define the Republican Party as it now exists had to explain their loss.
So they announced that the Democrat who beat them was, more or less, a Republican. Ryan claimed that the victor in Tuesday’s special election, Conor Lamb, ran as a “conservative.” Trump claimed that Lamb leaned so far to the right that, the president mused, “Is he a Republican? He sounds like a Republican to me.”
This is the carefully crafted spin that politicians peddle after they have suffered a setback.
Lamb’s narrow victory, which could still be challenged with a recount demand, unsettled top Republicans for good reason. It suggests, as the 2018 midterm-election season takes off, that Democrats could win almost anywhere. According to the Cook Political Report, there are 118 Republican-held seats in the US House that are less Republican-friendly than Pennsylvania’s District 18. This vulnerability explains why Ryan and Trump want pundits and pols to imagine that Lamb embraced their policies and simply ran with a “D” after his name. They want that to be the “lesson” that pundits and pols take away from Tuesday’s election result.
The real lesson, the one that Democrats need to recognize, is precisely the opposite. Lamb isn’t exactly a progressive Democrat. But Ryan’s being absurd when he tries to identify the Pennsylvanian as a conservative. Lamb campaigned as a sharp critic of corporate influence on American politics, someone who criticized Trump’s tax policies and aggressively defended the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs that Ryan seeks to dismantle. Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, says: “Lamb’s victory is a repudiation of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan’s plans to gut the American people’s earned benefits.”
There’s no question that Lamb adopted cautious language—and cautious stances—on several issues of consequence. Even as he supported abortion rights, the Democrat described himself as “personally pro-life.” Though he backed background checks for gun purchases and was explicitly opposed by the National Rifle Association, Lamb’s response to gun-violence issues was disappointingly tepid. The same goes for his vapid statements on immigration. And Lamb’s digs at House Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi were political gimmickry at its most drab.