What went wrong with Conor Lamb’s US Senate campaign?


On paper and in person, U.S. Representative Conor Lamb looked like the perfect candidate to win the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat in the fall.

He ticked all the boxes: smart, accomplished, former prosecutor, Marine Corps veteran, young, handsome, already tested in a tough race.

“His profile is everything you want in a candidate, which is why it’s so disappointing that his advisers drove the campaign into the ground,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist.

Lamb, 37, of Mount Lebanon lost more than 30 percentage points in the Democratic primary on Tuesday to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, 52, who rose from mayor of Braddock to a failed 2016 U.S. Senate primary in Lieutenant Governor in 2019.

Last week, pundits cited a number of reasons for Lamb’s crushing loss – from his own missteps, including strategy, spending and underestimating his opponent, to timing and an unlucky game.

“It certainly didn’t turn out the way they might have imagined — or a lot of people would have imagined it would,” said Christopher P. Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “It was hard to find anyone more highly regarded in electoral politics than Conor Lamb.

“What he didn’t have was the right match for this moment in American politics and, in particular, in Pennsylvania politics.”

Lamb, who won a special election in a Republican district for Congress in March 2018, was reelected twice. He announced his candidacy for the Senate seat in August 2021.

But Fetterman had announced his candidacy six months earlier.

Fetterman’s quick start — as well as his statewide name recognition thanks to the previously little-known position of lieutenant governor — put him in the lead early.

Lamb had name recognition in the Pittsburgh area but not all of Pennsylvania and had to counter Fetterman early, Borick said, and at great expense.

But he did neither.

“People didn’t know who he was,” Mikus said.

The Lamb campaign, which did not return messages seeking comment on this story, implemented a strategy that treated him as a frontrunner when he never was, Mikus said.

“I think there was a lot of arrogance – a lot of people believed what they wanted to believe and ignored reality,” he said.

Former congressman Jason Altmire, who served three terms before losing in 2012 in a newly redrawn district, has been closely following this year’s Democratic US Senate primary. He said moderates are at a distinct disadvantage in closed primaries like those in Pennsylvania.

“People who vote in primaries are extremely partisan,” Altmire said.

Lamb, who bills himself as a moderate, has spent his entire political career up until this race campaigning against Donald Trump, Altmire said.

When he had to shift gears for the Senate primary, Altmire said, it took too long.

The first warning sign should have been that Lamb only won his race against Sean Parnell in 2020 by two points — especially since Biden beat Trump in that district by three, said Altmire, who is now CEO. of Career Education Colleges and Universities and is based in Florida.

“It should have been a red flag,” he said. “He underperformed Biden.”

Combine that with lower primary turnout and the fact that closed primaries are run by hardliners from either party, Altmire said, Lamb faced a tough road.

Among his specific criticisms, Mikus said Lamb failed to use the press to his advantage, pushing back against the national media and failing to invite smaller local newspapers to campaign events in an attempt to win over voters in smaller communities.

“They didn’t do any of that,” Mikus said. “Nothing. That’s not how you run a campaign in 2022.”

They also failed to capitalize on online donations, which Fetterman mastered.

“They clearly had money issues,” Mikus said.

The majority of Lamb’s television commercial did not arrive until April and May. Even after launch, Lamb had to pull them for a few weeks, Mikus said.

“It was way too late when he started spending,” Borick said.

Mikus also criticized the way Lamb spent his time on the campaign trail touting the endorsements he got from unions and other Democratic stalwarts.

Approvals aren’t as important as they once were, experts said. If Lamb wanted to promote them, he should have used these events to inform the public about his positions on the platform, Mikus said.

But perhaps more importantly, it appears Lamb underestimated Fetterman, whom Altmire called “a juggernaut populist with a cult.”

“Fetterman’s brand – his unusual set of what he offers as a candidate – was much better suited for the time being and not easy to overcome,” Borick said.

Alison Dagnes, professor of political science at the University of Shippensburg, said Fetterman — and even his sheer physique — seemed to many voters to be thinking outside the box or genuine.

She cited his Twitter feed, which sometimes featured him having dinner at Sheetz or Wawa — like a regular Joe.

“His authenticity seems so carefully cultivated,” she said. “He really maximizes it.

“Fetterman went through the wall like the Kool-Aid man, (shouting) ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”

Lamb’s conventional, more subdued image and campaign simply couldn’t compete.

“In this particular cycle, where the Democratic Party is right now — and more traditional centrist figures like Tom Wolf and Joe Biden are struggling to get their approval ratings — his similarities didn’t necessarily fit the mold,” Borick said.

Fetterman fit the image of an electorate dissatisfied with the status quo, he said.

“I think Lamb kind of forgot in Pennsylvania, you really have to connect with a wide variety of people,” Dagnes said. “We are very divided. We are very cosmopolitan. We are very rural. We are very left. We are absolutely right. We are very metropolitan. We are very provincial.

“And connecting with all those people is a tough trick to pull off.”

Although Lamb repeatedly tried to convince voters he was “the normal guy,” Dagnes said, he still looked like “Skippy Silverspoon.”

Lamb’s image is reminiscent of the Massachusetts Kennedys – he attended Central Catholic before joining the University of Pennsylvania’s Ivy League for undergraduate and law school – and many voters are disappointed by this brand of Democrat , she said.

“I think people are a bit hungry for something different,” Dagnes said.

Altmire agreed, saying Fetterman, who showed up to meet the president the day the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed in the snow in shorts and a hoodie, presents himself to voters as the common man.

“I think his image is something they could relate to and see themselves in,” Altmire said. “They think the other person comes across as slick or not believable.”

Some people said it was Lamb’s ideology that led to the loss. Mikus does not buy it.

“He had a lot of grassroots and progressive issues,” he said. “Conor Lamb should have been the nominee. I think his campaign, i.e. his staff, has done him a disservice throughout this run.

Even though Lamb lost that primary, pundits said, his political future is still bright.

“I think Conor Lamb is still a rising star,” Dagnes said. “He is the future of the Democratic Party, and he always will be.”

An electoral defeat does not ruin a person’s chances forever.

“The political world always gives you a mulligan,” Mikus said.

Lamb’s youth, character, experience and image will remain valuable in the political sphere. With his legal background, they said, he could work in law, politics, advocacy or administration in Washington, D.C.

“If he’s interested in a possible return to electoral politics,” Borick said, “a lot of these opportunities could help him develop his case further.”

Paula Reed Ward is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Paula by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .


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