Thursday, March 15, 2018


By Dominique Paul Noth

Conor Lamb's astounding victory in Pennsylvania despite
Trump's best efforts.
Trump couldn’t have entered in a stronger personal position March 10 when he held one of his patented “lock em up” rallies in the House special election, ostensibly to help Rick Saccone in the District 18 Trump had carried by 22 points.

In that bizarre stream of red meat self-praise and insults on a  Saturday night,  he could highlight his recent  tariffs on foreign steel (designed for  these Pennsylvania blue collar voters to love), a new tax bill embracing the penny-for-you dollar-for-CEO  trickle down those voters have cheered in the past,  personal diplomacy with North Korea that many find daring, nice noises of compassion on school shootings  and then standing firm with the NRA, nice noises on DACA and then blaming the Democrats for screwing up his sympathetic heart.  

Even the twitter firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson  March 13 came too late to influence turnout negatively and, given the propensity of Trump voters to like his style of blunt action, would have helped rather than hurt.

Despite such an enormous wind at his back in a solid red gerrymander – some thought it solidly red for any Republican no matter what – Saccone lost. It was a squeaker but Democrat Conor Lamb was the “apparent winner” (apparent not because he doesn’t have the votes but there could be a “wing and prayer” recount).

All sorts of lessons are being drawn from this staggering loss  -- staggering personally to Trump’s image and staggering financially to the dark money that kneejerk  Republican donors have been blindly hurling at elections whenever the RNC panics, and don’t think those donors aren’t rethinking  such waste.

Candidate Lamb directly raised four times as much as Saccone in personal (and recordable) pleas, but was outspent $10.7 million to $4.7 million, mostly in outside money attack ads on the former Marine’s character and viewpoints. Certainly Trump wasted a lot of ammunition sending Don Jr. in a hair-net, Ivanka, Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence and even Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to help.

Meanwhile, of course, some progressives were concerned by Lamb’s pointed refusal to support Nancy Pelosi as House leader, his support of gun ownership (with avid support of background checks), his personal opposition to abortion while supporting women’s rights.

But when GOP’s Paul Ryan tried to explain Lamb’s victory as a conservative win, he obviously never heard Lamb’s full-throated defense of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security (programs Ryan is determined to cut), his opposition to the Trump tax bill and his embrace of not just union movements but the pension programs the GOP is also attacking.

If a candidate supports universal health care, stronger unions, no cuts to Social Security, a woman’s right to choose and is pro medical marijuana, many voters would welcome that as a new definition of conservatives. (It was also Ryan’s gigantic PAC that misfired most in attacks on Lamb’s persona.)

What the heck is meant by a big tent party if not this? Here we have a living example of a candidate who fit his community and turned them from their kneejerk Republicanism. And he checked a lot of Democratic boxes doing so.

The district will disappear in a few months as a new district map ordered by the Pennsylvania high court takes hold to end the GOP gerrymandering, likely leaving Lamb with a friendlier district to run in again in November.

But he may be helping define what are the core values that put someone inside the Democratic Party -- and what are the new or transitioning values (same sex marriage, reasons for warfare, strategies on farming and environment, no drones or some drones) Democrats disagree on as they are pulled to the left and then to the right (if those terms have any meaning these days).

During Wisconsin’s crowded campaign for governor, with 15 reasonable choices and not a JFK among them (by which I mean no one has jumped out to voters eight months ahead), I’ve talked to Bernie Sanders diehards  who are unsatisfied with candidates who don’t adopt Bernie’s precise language on health care.  Yet many of those candidates gently prefer their own terms and methods to solve the same problem.

A lesser known candidate for Wisconsin governor, former legislator
 Kelda Roys may have scored modernized points by
 not hesitating on breast-feeding in a TV ad.
I’ve talked to some that think a Democrat from Milwaukee or Madison is the kiss of death yet sneer at the “hick” views on drainage and budget wonkishness from legislators like Dana Wachs and Kathleen Vinehout. I’ve talked to some who say it better not be a woman again and others who say it better be a woman, which will perk up the ears of Vinehout and former legislator Kelda Roys.  I’ve heard others rail about the older age of most candidates yet are slowly understanding that 70 is the new 50.

I’ve talked to Democrats still upset that Bernie hasn’t registered as a Democrat– and in Wisconsin, one candidate against Scott Walker, “no labels” figure Mike McCabe is in a strange battle with the Dems over access to their data intended just for Democrats. (Is this a battle of scruples or politics?)

“Medicare for all” (Sanders language) and “steps to single payer” (a term of art some candidates  now prefer) seem a silly reason  to split party support, but there is a persnickety side to Democrats that  tend to gripe over nuances on guns, women’s rights, health care, educational approaches, immigration approaches and more. 

Should we throw people out of the party who are not vocally angry enough about Trump or outspoken enough about Black Lives Matter?  Should a Catholic whose social justice views are liberal but supports the church on abortion (but not on contraception in my experience) be drummed out of the party? Should we expect a rural voter to have the same concerns as a city voter over water, guns and immigration?

Let Trump be the one living in his own simplistic dreamland.  He and his party tried to attack Lamb on all the jaded issues -- guns, crime and Pelosi -- while Lamb focused on kitchen table issues, saying he would work with this president where he can, raising the larger question of what people are sent to D.C. to do. 

Sticking too close to Donald resulted in the devastating sea change in a district that was designed to remain Republican. But Lamb advanced by just letting Trump stew in his own ineptitudes. 

In a red region, the winning road was not to take on Trump directly but to take on the issues, to carve up his constant boasts and define just what you will do differently for your voters, not your party, in office.

In a bluer region, a different strategy may be needed, but beating up likely supporters seems particularly silly. The danger for Democrats is eating their own young.

Joe Kennedy III
This week I heard anger from Democrats at other Democrats who raised questions about the student walkouts (doubts that they would work) – and anger running the other way. Skepticism is hardly a reason to throw a friend over the cliff, especially a friend who shares your basic concerns.   

To many, the fine response to the State of the Union given by Joe Kennedy III was undone by harping on his resistance to marijuana legalization.   There is some family history there and some real internal squeamishness on his part, but is the “right view” on pot also now essential to the definition of Democrat?

Recently harsh divisions have erupted over changes to the Dodd-Frank bill in the Senate.

Elizabeth Warren
Now personally I am on Elizabeth Warren’s side on this one, that loosening controls on sizable banks could result in another financial meltdown.  But many Democrats of good standing support the help the bill gives community banks. It’s quite an argument – whether somewhat justifiable help for community banks is overloaded with handouts and deregulation for quite large banks. 

It comes at a moment of great suspicion about Republican economic thrusts in the first place – can anything good come from adjusting Dodd-Frank?  The Warren side (where I stand), including the likes of Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, suggests that if the bill was clearly going to help smaller regional banks it would not extend to the likes of such “regional” giants as SunTrust, BB&T, Citizens, M&T and BMO Financial Corp, which are openly playing around with the $50 billion threshold the bill sets.

Missouri's Claire McCaskill may be a moderate but Trump
and the GOP are working overtime to beat her.
But it’s not just known conservative Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota or Joe Manchin of West Virginia that Warren was in a fight with.  There are about a dozen Democrats in all – some in crucial re-election races -- Virginia’s Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, Florida’s Bill Nelson and Montana’s Jon Tester.  

Yet those opponents of the Liz Warren stand –including Michael Bennett of Colorado, Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and  Debbie Stabenow of Michigan  -- have now seen themselves called racists in print.  They think that’s a bit much.

But so do many Catholics who, like Lamb, support the church’s view on abortion and have found themselves branded as too extreme to be called Democrats. At a recent grassroots gathering, in fact, such viewpoints were shouted down.
Billionaires were funding Wisconsin Tammy Baldwin's opponents
even before they were chosen.

Interestingly McCaskill, Heitkamp and Nelson call their campaigns crucial to making the Senate a Democratic majority, since they are indeed facing a blitz of dark money to unseat them.  Each thinks their contest is the most important in the nation – and McCaskill is clearly under special pressure though you would think her shrewd moderation would win out in Missouri.

I would argue that the more openly progressive Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Brown of Ohio, Elizabeth Warren and Chris Murphy of Connecticut are facing the biggest financial guns.

We are entering the period when Democrats will be out-raised on money issues but have to start digging hard into generally smaller pocketbooks to flip both Senate and House. I sense a reluctance among progressive Democrats to support the likes of McCaskill or Heitkamp who are not their ideological cup of tea in a perfect world. But obviously they are legions better than the Trumpites and women haters they are facing.

There is equal reluctance among moderate Democrats to help Liz, Bernie and Sherrod, believing their views are pulling the party too strongly to the left, where some fear the Democrats nationally can’t win.  To some outspokenness is good style and to others it is not. And such views are affecting the wallet.

This is not the time to pick and choose in some abstract chess player universe for 2018.
Beto O'Rourke may prove that Texans dislike Ted Cruz
 almost a much as the rest of the country does.

There are also new players to take a hard look at. Consider Rep. Krysten Sinema of Arizona hoping to move up to take Republican Jeff Flake’s senate seat.  She began in the Green Party, became a Blue Dog Democrat but is a huge champion of Dreamers and gay rights – so she’s gone round the barn on many issues, which may be ideal for Arizona.

There is also Beto O’Rourke, the photogenic Democrat taking on Ted Cruz and defying the NRA – in Texas! -- in a task that once seemed as unlikely as, say, Conor Lamb winning in Pennsylvania.

There will be time to argue if party labels are necessary in the first place, though right now they seem convenient at the very least and informative at the most,  except where party leaders are too stiff-necked for their own good.  But it would be shameful if the Democrats, facing the opportunity of a lifetime in federal and state races, chose this moment to break up over self-imposed litmus tests.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee. 

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