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Conor Lamb and Doug Jones: What two Democratic upsets in Trump country suggest about the 2018 midterms

If Trump’s endorsements won’t work in Alabama or Pittsburgh, where will they work?

by Howell Raines /
Democratic candidate Conor Lamb greets supporters during his election night rally in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional district on March 13, 2018.Brendan McDermid / Reuters
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Republicans hoping for re-election in 2018 should study the parallels between the (presumed) victories of Congressman-elect Conor Lamb and newly elected Senator Doug Jones. Both avoided Trumpian rage, with Jones promising to worry about middle-class “kitchen table” issues and Lamb vowing to give manners a chance in Washington, D.C. And as Democratic freshmen on Capitol Hill, they will provide a model that could revive their party in time for 2018 and 2020.

Many people remember James Carville’s famous jibe that exurban Pennsylvania is Alabama, but as someone who spends half the year in each state, the remark to me sounds more clever than analytical in understanding two electorates that clearly rose above the reflexive bigotry referred to by Carville in these special off-year elections.

Both Lamb and Jones ran campaigns that underscored the complex demographics of their respective venues.

Both Lamb and Jones ran campaigns that underscored the complex demographics of their respective venues. These demographics made a 2016-style Trump attack — complete with racial blasts and soak-the-broke economics — ineffective. Neither state is as simple as it seemed when Democratic machines ruled in Pennsylvania and George Wallace-style rhetoric worked its dark magic in Alabama. For example, affluent, artistic Fairhope, Alabama and the tony Birmingham suburbs have little in common with Pennsylvania’s economically troubled, time-warped Poconos only 80 miles from Manhattan.

In both places, rage fatigue seems to have contributed to definitive defections among zealous Trump independents and disaffected Republicans of 2016. In decisive numbers, these voters peeled away to candidates who remained conspicuously composed while taking nuanced, empathetic positions on the Trump hot buttons of guns, abortion and the browning of America.

Lamb and Jones are sons, respectively, of Pittsburgh and the “Pittsburgh of the South,” Birmingham. They remind Democrats of the party’s “big tent” that sheltered the poor and privileged alike. Jones is the son of a steel worker and Lamb the son of an old-line Democratic political family. They come at Trump’s political foundation — the celebrated, 40 percent “base”— from different angles. But they both demonstrate an important fact: Trump's core voters are not as secure as he may hope. Indeed, even in deep-red Alabama, key elements of the Trump base fell away like chips from a hammered block of stone. If the base slides into the low 30s, Trump’s fragile coalition of angry, white swing voters and habituated GOP loyalists loses its magic.

Trump's core voters are not as secure as he may hope. Indeed, even in deep-red Alabama, key elements of the Trump base fell away like chips from a hammered block of stone.

Importantly, the events of the past few months should inform Democratic efforts between now and 2020. Marginal Trump supporters who held their noses in 2016 were offered fresh air by the Democratic newcomers. As noted, the pattern first emerged on Nov. 7, 2017 when moderate Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Ed Gillespie in the governor’s race. Gillespie, like Lamb’s opponent Rep. Rick Saccone, promised to make their camps amen corners for the Trump gospel.

Both Lamb and Jones also ran campaigns that took advantage of local, as opposed to national, Democratic root systems. Pennsylvania’s tone-deaf Saccone snubbed unions, a plan that backfired; while many labor voters have been lured away by Reaganism, plenty of Pennsylvania blue-collar families still have trace memories from generations of schooling by the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education. And this week, at least some of those legacy Democrats came home.

Meanwhile, among Alabama blacks, Jones quietly revived the church-based turnout machine that has lain neglected since the civil rights era. In contrast, Roy Moore, the accused child molester who Trump urged his Alabama followers to send to Washington, believed he’d get a monolithic white vote based on name recognition, religious zealotry and Trump’s standing as an honorary Alabama folk hero. This strategy ignored crippling defections among affluent, educated suburban Republicans and failed to notice Jones’ ground game in the re-energized black community, which improved on Barack Obama’s minority popularity in urban Alabama.

While the traditional Democratic grassroots playbook was important, it was essential for Jones and Lamb to stiff-arm Washington Democrats.

While the traditional Democratic grassroots playbook was important, it was essential for Jones and Lamb to stiff-arm Washington Democrats (with the exception of “Uncle Joe” Biden, whose appearances surely helped both campaigns). Lamb, in particular, brought home some painful but important points for the Democratic Congressional caucuses: The party’s television stars are played out and Lamb’s promise to oppose House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in future leadership races is an ominous sign for her, not to mention some of her peers in Congressional leadership.

Even without full access to exit polls, it’s probably safe to say that Team Trump also suffered in Pennsylvania, Alabama and Virginia for what might be called the role-model issue. Trump does not act like the kind of person who either Jones’ blue-collar parents or Lamb’s family of well-connected Democrats would want their sons to grow up to be. That issue, if handled deftly, has enormous potential for Democrats next year, especially if Trump keeps orating into the hurricane winds roaring around his White House.

At some point, Congressional Republicans interested in survival have to reevaluate whether the president’s strategy of permanent cultural warfare will work again. One has to think that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among others, are beginning to wonder: If Trump’s endorsements won’t work in Alabama or Pittsburgh, where will they work?

Howell Raines was executive editor of The New York Times from 2001-2003, editorial page editor from 1993-2001, and prior to that Washington editor, national political correspondent and London bureau chief. Raines won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1993 for an article on coming of age in segregated Birmingham. He currently lives in Fairhope, Alabama in the winter and spends his summers in Henryville, Pennsylvania.

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