PITTSBURGH — Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., launched a campaign for Senate on Friday, becoming the latest candidate in a Democratic primary that will shape the future of the party.
The race for the open seat — Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, is not seeking re-election in 2022 — has national implications. Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, and Democrats see Pennsylvania as key to helping them hold or expand their majority.
“I believe this is the most important Senate seat in the country,” Lamb said in a video previewing his announcement.
He formally declared his candidacy in the afternoon, outside a Pittsburgh union hall.
"It is going to be the work of our lifetime to preserve this democracy," Lamb told his gathered supporters. "It is not something we can do with tweets and slogans. It's going to be complicated. It's going to be hard. But just as Americans have always done, we get to decide what our future looks like."
His entry into the Senate race will make his House seat a primary target for Republicans, who are trying to flip control of the lower chamber where there is also a thin margin.
Even before Lamb’s announcement, the primary was a tangled rivalry of ideologies and constituencies.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the early fundraising leader, has strong ties to the progressive movement. So does Malcolm Kenyatta, a state legislator from Philadelphia who would be the state’s first Black and openly gay senator. Val Arkoosh, who chairs the Montgomery County Commission, appeals to those who are eager to elect the state’s first female senator and see her pragmatic reputation and political base in the Philadelphia suburbs as strengths.
Lamb, like Fetterman, hails from the Democratic stronghold on the western end of the state. At 37 years old, he’s closer in age to Kenyatta, 31, than to Fetterman, 51, or Arkoosh, 60. He and Kenyatta also were among President Joe Biden’s most visible surrogates in 2020. But Lamb’s politics place him in the center, firmly aligning him with Biden and establishment Democrats.
“He represents what I’d say is the Pennsylvania sense of values,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who is endorsing Lamb’s Senate bid, said in an interview this week. “Not too far left, not too far right. Moderate.”
Such tensions are particularly acute among Democratic factions after this week’s special election primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, where Shontel Brown became the latest Biden-friendly candidate to defeat the progressive left in a primary this year.
“Who’s next?” Coleman Lamb, his brother and close adviser, tweeted after Brown’s victory.
Lamb used his launch speech to present himself as a friend to working-class voters in a big industrial state that Biden won by a narrow margin last year. He focused not on his Democratic rivals Friday, but on former President Donald Trump and the Republicans.
"They are lying about the last election, and they're still trying to overturn it," said Lamb, winding up a condemnation of the violent pro-Trump riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. "They excuse, and they remain silent about, the attack on our Capitol. They're making it harder to vote, harder for Black people, brown people — really anyone for whom it's just hard to get to the polls on Election Day. They are preparing to remove election officials who tell the truth. They sideline fellow Republicans in Congress who simply tell the truth."
"All of that is bad enough, but here's the real danger," Lamb added. "If they will take such a big lie and place it at the center of their party, you cannot expect them to tell the truth about anything else."
A former federal prosecutor and Marine Corps veteran who comes from a well-established political family, Conor Lamb burst onto the national scene in 2018, when he flipped a Republican district in a special election. Through that race, Lamb forged a deep connection with Biden, who while campaigning with the future congressman said he reminded him of his late son, Beau. Two years later, Lamb was one of the centrist House members who signed on early to help Biden’s presidential campaign.
Lamb has won two full terms since the special election, including a close race with Republican Sean Parnell in 2020. Parnell is among an increasingly crowded field of GOP candidates running for Toomey’s seat next year.
“Donald Trump knows how important Pennsylvania is,” Lamb said of the former president in his video. “He's come here to campaign against me three elections in a row. And each time, with your help, we've won.”
The early months of the Senate campaign pit Fetterman and Kenyatta against each other as dueling candidates of the progressive movement. Moderate Pennsylvania Democrats who’ve spoken to NBC News in recent months had expressed interest in Arkoosh while wondering if a more centrist option such as Lamb or Rep. Chrissy Houlahan might emerge. Houlahan announced in June that she would instead seek re-election to the House.
Polling on the developing primary field has been sparse, with Fetterman leading Lamb, 40 percent to 21 percent, in a poll the lieutenant governor’s Senate campaign commissioned in May.
Fetterman also has a massive cash advantage. He had $3 million on hand at the end of July, trailed by Arkoosh with $632,000 and Kenyatta with $282,000. State Sen. Sharif Street, who is raising money for exploratory purposes but has not officially declared his candidacy, had about $190,000 on hand.
Lamb reported $1.8 million in his House campaign fund. He can apply that money to his Senate bid.
CORRECTION (August 6, 2021, 11:24 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the age of Val Arkoosh, a candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania. She is 60, not 54.