Elections (Archived)

Democrats look to win PA-18 with a (sort of) pro-life candidate

Conor Lamb – from his campaign's Facebook page

Conor Lamb – from his campaign's Facebook page

Linda Andrews, chair of the Washington County Democratic Committee, is excited for the first time in a long time. She thinks her party can reverse decades of losses to Western PA Republicans with Conor Lamb’s candidacy in the 18th Congressional District special election.

“He’s young, he’s educated and he’s a vet. He’s got everything going for him. He’s a former JAG and he’s got a clear sense of right and wrong,” she enthused. “This is a golden opportunity for us. It’s time for a big, fat change. And we’re going to have it.”

The self-identified Catholic, Ivy League-educated Marine Corps vet and former prosecutor also piqued the interest of The Washington Post’s David Weigel, who wrote that Lamb could be competitive in a coal country district that has leaned red despite the region’s strong union tradition and a Democratic registration advantage.

“You’ve got a Democrat who’s got a great bio and is also willing to take stances national Democrats won't take, like being pro-life or pro-gun,” Weigel wrote.

But in facing off against state Rep. Rick Saccone, a Trump-like Republican, the challenge for Lamb is deciding when, if ever, to proclaim those stances. These are still sensitive topics for national funders: when asked about Lamb’s views, a source at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee simply noted that PA-18 was not on the DCCC’s list of competitive “Battlefield Districts.”

Publicly, Lamb seems to be trying to split the difference. After being selected by the county committees that make up the 18th District to run in the March 13 special election, Lamb told Weigel, “I come from a Catholic background, (but) choice is the law of the land.” But when asked for specifics, like if he supports public funding for abortion, he’s ducked questions from the Post-Gazette and WESA

The continued opacity of Lamb’s position on abortion gives renewed resonance to the fact that he’s running to fill a seat vacated by the loudly anti-choice Republican Tim Murphy – who abruptly retired following revelations that he’d pressured his mistress to get an abortion. When City&State PA asked Lamb again about his positions on public funding for abortion – and other issues, like gun control – his campaign again offered only a brief canned statement.

“Conor is working hard meeting people in the district and the campaign will have lots to say in the coming weeks,” spokesperson Abby Murphy said via email.

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, who repped the nearby 12th District, liked to say he was “pro-coal, pro-life, and pro-gun.” And it’s also worth noting that a few prominent Democrats, like U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, have long walked the line between religious opposition to abortion and party priorities like preserving public funding for Planned Parenthood – although Casey has also been criticized over votes to restrict abortion access

Planned Parenthood PA said it was too early to discuss PA-18, let alone actively opposing or supporting Lamb’s candidacy. Planned Parenthood PA spokesperson Lindsey Mauldin said only that “personal health care decisions like abortion should be left between a woman and her doctor, and without political interference.”

The state Democratic Party has not shied away from Lamb – although spokesperson Brandon Cwalina similarly ignored questions about Lamb’s stance on abortion and gun control, saying that the candidate would “fight for good-paying jobs and quality, affordable health care.”

However, some Pittsburgh-area political sources privately grumbled to City&State PA that there was still bad blood over pro-choice, female Navy vet Pam Iovino, being passed over in favor of Lamb, who is related to a local political family. Critics like these also charge that Lamb pitched himself differently in different sections of the district, which stretches from the Ohio border to the inner suburbs of Pittsburgh, to win the nomination. 

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, a Lamb supporter, described the candidate as “pro-choice.” But Andrews, from more rural Washington County, phrased it a little differently.

“He is pro-life. But he also said he believes in choice. He said that at our little convention, where we select a candidate,” she explained. 

(When informed about these statements, Lamb’s campaign offered City&State PA a new statement saying, “Lamb tells anyone who asks that he’s a Catholic who doesn’t think his personal religious beliefs should restrict a woman’s legal right to choose.”)

To Andrews, there’s no ambiguity – it’s all just good politics in the 18th.

“We’re very conservative out here, but we’re also Democrats. Our area is just very rural. Pittsburgh is like a little island in the middle of a rural area,” she said. “I’m going to say that most of the Democrats I deal with are pro-life. But many also want the ability to choose what to do. They get the wrong idea when you say you’re pro-choice.”