Moderate Democrats Struggle To Take Off In Key Pennsylvania Races

But Rep. Conor Lamb is spending heavily to make up ground in the U.S. Senate primary.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), whose 2018 win in a House district carried by then-President Donald Trump made him a national star, trails Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in the U.S. Senate primary.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), whose 2018 win in a House district carried by then-President Donald Trump made him a national star, trails Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in the U.S. Senate primary.
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Moderate Democratic candidates are struggling to develop a competitive edge in two key Pennsylvania primary races, highlighting the growing strength of progressives in a battleground state.

The pattern is evident in the Democratic Senate primary, where Rep. Conor Lamb has trailed Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in polling and fundraising, as well as in a primary in the state’s solid-blue 12th Congressional District, where the most moderate major candidate has stumbled early on.

Lamb’s challenges resurfaced Monday when Politico reported on a memo circulated by a super PAC supporting his bid. The super PAC, Penn Progress, sounded the alarm to donors, warning that Fetterman led Lamb by 30 percentage points in a February poll because “voters don’t yet see Fetterman as the liberal he is.”

“For Conor Lamb to have a path in the primary, this dynamic needs to change,” the group concluded.

Pennsylvania’s May 17 primary is still nearly two months away, and campaigns can change dramatically as television advertising heats up. But in addition to raising the prospect of an intra-party slugfest in the homestretch, the super PAC document was also remarkable for the vulnerability it revealed in the once-dominant moderate wing of the Democratic Party.

Lamb’s 2018 special election victory in a rural district that then-President Donald Trump had won by a large margin turned him into a national star and an archetype for future Democratic success in Pennsylvania. He went on to win in two general elections in a differently drawn district that Trump had won by a smaller margin.

Lamb is nonetheless now something of an underdog against Fetterman, a more progressive Democrat who boasts the advantage of a statewide post. A public poll earlier this month had Fetterman leading Lamb by just 13 percentage points ― a smaller deficit than the one cited by Penn Progress but still a sizable gulf. And as of the end of 2021, Fetterman had $2.3 million more than Lamb in cash on hand ― helping Fetterman beat Lamb to the airwaves by over a week.

“Somebody had to put their sights on Fetterman early,” said Mike Mikus, who managed the campaign of one of Fetterman’s rivals in the 2016 Senate primary but has not endorsed in the race. “There’s still time, but he’s up on TV building up goodwill.”

Lamb’s campaign has not yet attacked Fetterman on the airwaves. But his team is hoping to improve his standing by introducing him to Pennsylvanians on television. His campaign is spending nearly $700,000 in TV advertising this week, compared with about $275,000 from Fetterman, according to advertising data obtained by HuffPost.

“This race is wide open.”

- Abby Nassif-Murphy, campaign manager, Conor Lamb for Senate

“This race is wide open. The biggest question on the minds of Pennsylvania Democrats is who can win in November,” Abby Nassif-Murphy, Lamb’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “When they find out that Conor Lamb is a Marine who’s beaten Trump Republicans three times in three years in three of the toughest elections in the country, they have a serious answer.”

Erik Smith, a spokesperson for Penn Progress, declined to discuss the super PAC’s strategy with HuffPost. He offered, however, that he had gotten involved in the super PAC because he believes that Lamb’s three election wins in districts won by Trump make him the “best equipped” candidate to flip the open Senate seat for Democrats.

“It’s not about John Fetterman,” Smith said. “It’s about the strength of Conor Lamb.”

Fetterman supporters maintain that his frosty relationship with party insiders and focus on reviving Pennsylvania’s rural areas make him the best choice for the nomination. Some also noted that Penn Progress’s memo had Fetterman performing better than Lamb in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with at least one major Republican candidate, according to Politico.

The Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania is the source of such significant national attention because it could well determine control of the Senate in an election cycle where Democrats face an unfavorable political climate.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s announcement that he will retire at the close of his term sparked a scramble in both major parties to succeed him. In addition to Lamb and Fetterman, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta is running for the Democratic nomination. The top contenders for the Republican nomination are former hedge fund executive Dave McCormick and Mehmet Oz, a physician and former television personality.

But moderate Democrats are not only on the defensive in the Senate primary. In Pennsylvania’s new 12th Congressional District, a Pittsburgh-area seat due to be vacated by retiring Rep. Mike Doyle (D), the most moderate contender is finding his footing again after an early snafu.

Attorney Steve Irwin, a mainstream liberal endorsed by Doyle and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald (D) ― both of whom are also backing Lamb ― submitted several allegedly false petition signatures to qualify for the ballot, including the name of a federal judge.

There is no evidence yet that Irwin lacks the signatures to qualify for the ballot. And his campaign has said that rather than reflecting a pattern, the apparently inauthentic signatures were all collected by a single paid canvasser.

In Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District, state Rep. Summer Lee, left, has the backing of left-leaning groups against attorney Steve Irwin, a liberal favored by the local Democratic establishment.
In Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District, state Rep. Summer Lee, left, has the backing of left-leaning groups against attorney Steve Irwin, a liberal favored by the local Democratic establishment.
Summer Lee Campaign/Steve Irwin Campaign

Regardless, the campaign of Irwin’s left-wing rival, state Rep. Summer Lee (D), has been happy to seize on the embarrassing headlines.

Irwin, a former head of Pennsylvania’s Securities Commission, has touted his experience and ability to “get things done,” noted Lee campaign adviser Abigail Gardner.

“That is an interesting juxtaposition with how his campaign has operated to date,” Gardner told HuffPost.

Irwin’s campaign rejected the idea that the invalid petition signatures reflect on his competence.

“This election isn’t going to be about petitions; it’s going to be about who is willing to go to work every day to help get President Biden’s agenda through Congress,” Alistair Glover, Irwin’s campaign manager, said in a statement.

Some politics watchers concurred, cautioning against over-interpreting Irwin’s troubles and noting that it is not uncommon for a candidate to submit petition signatures that are subsequently invalidated.

What’s more, Irwin raised over $65,000 more than Lee in 2021 despite entering the race a few weeks after she did. And the district’s new boundaries, which include centrist and even conservative swaths of the Pittsburgh suburbs, might be more favorable to him come Election Day.

“This is a minor thing in the big scope of the race,” Mikus said.

“The progressives here in Pennsylvania are extremely well organized, and they run strong campaigns.”

- Mike Mikus, Democratic strategist

Still, Lee, who unseated an incumbent state lawmaker in 2018, appears to have a more energized grassroots base. Her campaign has said she submitted more than 7,300 signatures to get on the ballot, compared with the more than 2,000 that Irwin reports submitting.

In addition, Lee has secured the blessing of the state branch of the SEIU, the country’s biggest service-sector labor union. And the Pennsylvania state AFL-CIO, which declined to endorse Lee in 2020, has stayed neutral in the primary thus far.

Likewise, in the Senate primary, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, has not yet endorsed. In 2016, by contrast, when Democrats hoped to unseat Toomey, the DSCC backed former state environmental protection chief Katie McGinty over Fetterman.

“We’re keeping open lines of communications with all of the candidates, we’re assessing the campaigns, and we’re working to build the infrastructure for the general election,” DSCC spokesperson David Bergstein said in a statement. “We haven’t issued endorsements in any challenger races — yet — but we are not taking anything off the table.”

Lamb’s allies argue that Fetterman boasts built-in advantages in the primary that Lamb lacked. Fetterman’s status as a statewide elected official since 2018, as well as his unusual appearance ― he is known for his towering height, bald pate and casual dress ― gave him a running start in terms of establishing name recognition, according to Matt Bennett, a Lamb supporter and executive vice president of the centrist think tank Third Way.

“Nobody is surprised that Lamb is not either tied or ahead at this stage,” Bennett said.

Bennett likened the Senate primary to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary when President Joe Biden struggled to make his mark until a victory in South Carolina prompted senior Democrats to close ranks behind him almost overnight. Lamb could follow a similar trajectory in the coming weeks, Bennett ventured.

But memories of Biden’s come-from-behind primary win are already fueling complacency, according to Mikus.

“The progressives here in Pennsylvania are extremely well organized, and they run strong campaigns,” he said. “To beat them back, you have to run strong campaigns as well.”

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