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What went wrong with Conor Lamb’s U.S. Senate campaign?


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

He checked all the boxes: smart, accomplished, former prosecutor, Marine Corps veteran, young, attractive, previously tested in a tough race.

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

Lamb, 37, of Mt. Lebanon lost by more than 30 percentage points Tuesday in the Democratic primary to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, 52, who went from mayor of Braddock to a failed U.S. Senate primary race in 2016 to lieutenant governor in 2019.

Experts this past week cited a number of reasons for Lamb’s landslide loss — from his own missteps, including strategy, spending and underestimating his opponent, to timing and an unlucky matchup.

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

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

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

But Fetterman announced his candidacy six months earlier.

Fetterman’s jump start — as well as his statewide name recognition from leveraging the previously little-known position of lieutenant governor — put him ahead early.

Lamb had name recognition in the Pittsburgh region but not across Pennsylvania and needed to counter Fetterman early, Borick said, and with a lot of spending.

But he did neither.

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

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

“I think there was a lot of arrogance — a lot of people believing what they wanted to believe and ignoring reality,” he said.

Former Congressman Jason Altmire, who served three terms before losing in 2012 in a newly redrawn district, followed this year’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary closely. He said that moderates are at a pronounced disadvantage in closed primaries like Pennsylvania’s.

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

Lamb, who presents as a moderate, spent his entire political career 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 given that Biden beat Trump in that district by three, said Altmire, who now serves as the CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities and is based in Florida.

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

Combine that with lower turnout in primaries, and the fact that closed primaries are driven by the extremists of either party, Altmire said, Lamb was facing a tough road.

Among his specific criticisms, Mikus said Lamb failed to use the press to his advantage, rebuffing national media and failing to invite smaller, local newspapers to campaign events to try to win over voters in small communities.

“They did none of that,” Mikus said. “None. 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 problems,” Mikus said.

The majority of Lamb’s television advertising didn’t come until April and May. Even after he launched, Lamb had to pull them down for a few weeks, Mikus said.

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

Mikus also was critical of how Lamb spent his time on the campaign trail touting endorsements he had earned from labor unions and other Democratic stalwarts.

Endorsements are no longer as important as they once were, experts said. If Lamb wanted to promote those, he should have used those events to inform the public about his platform positions, Mikus said.

But perhaps most importantly, it appears Lamb underestimated Fetterman, who Altmire called a “juggernaut populist with a cult following.”

“Fetterman’s brand — his unusual package of what he offers as a candidate — was a much better fit for the moment and not something easily overcome,” Borick said.

Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University, said Fetterman — and even the sheer physicality of him — appeared to many voters to be outside the box, or authentic.

She cited his Twitter feed, which would sometimes feature him dining at Sheetz or Wawa — like a regular Joe.

“His authenticity seems so carefully cultivated,” she said. “He’s really maximizing it.

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

Lamb’s conventional, more moderate, image and campaign just 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 in their approval ratings — his similarities didn’t necessarily fit the mold,” Borick said.

Fetterman did fit the image for an electorate not satisfied with the status quo, he said.

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

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

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

Lamb’s image is reminiscent of the Massachusetts Kennedys — he attended Central Catholic before going on to the Ivy League at the University of Pennsylvania for both undergraduate and law school — and a lot of voters are disillusioned by that brand of Democrat, she said.

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

Altmire agreed, saying Fetterman, who showed up to meet the president the day of the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse in the snow in shorts and a hoodie, presents 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 have said it was Lamb’s ideology that led to the loss. Mikus doesn’t buy it.

“He had lots of popular, progressive issues,” he said. “Conor Lamb should have been the nominee. I think his campaign, meaning his staff, did him a complete disservice through this whole race.”

Even though Lamb lost this primary, the experts said, his political future is still bright.

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

One election loss does not ruin a person’s chances forever.

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

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

“If he’s interested in an eventual return to electoral politics,” Borick said, “lots of these opportunities could help him further build his pitch.”

Paula Reed Ward is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paula by email at pward@triblive.com or via Twitter .





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