PA-18 Special Election a Key Test for Dems' Labor Support
A special House election in Pennsylvania next month is the first major race of 2018, taking the temperature of voters and testing both parties’ strategies eight months before the midterms.
It’s also a major first test for Democrats as they work to re-establish ties to a core constituency that drifted away from them in 2016: union members.
Winning back support from working-class voters has been a central Democratic concern since many bucked the party to support Donald Trump, helping him secure the presidency. Democrats have developed a kitchen-table economic message meant to appeal to these voters, and the effort is critical to their success in key states both this November and in the race against President Trump in 2020.
Steve Rosenthal, a Democratic consultant with deep ties to labor unions, including serving as the political director of the AFL-CIO during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, said the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District is an “interesting dry run” for what lies ahead.
“There’s a huge amount of ground that needs to be made up and a huge amount of work that needs to be done, but the potential is really there,” Rosenthal said.
Democrats’ decline among union members in 2016 was stark and consequential. Even though labor leaders backed Hillary Clinton and mobilized on her behalf, national exit polls showed she won 51 percent of union households, a seven-point drop from President Obama in 2012. Trump won 42 percent of union households, a two-point uptick from Mitt Romney.
Among not just households but union members specifically, the drop-off was similar: Clinton underperformed Obama by 10 points, while Trump outperformed Romney by three, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters last year. The discrepancy helped make the difference in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, which were crucial to Trump’s victory.
PA-18 is in the heart of Trump country: It’s in the southwest corner of the state, covering a wide swath from the West Virginia border to the suburbs of Pittsburgh. It’s overwhelmingly white, heavily working-class, and the president carried it by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016. It’s a union-heavy area, with more than 87,000 union members or household members, from service employees to teachers to steelworkers and coal miners.
Some unions in the area previously backed Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who triggered the special election when he resigned amid a sexual misconduct scandal. Now, union leaders are backing the Democrat in this race, Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former prosecutor running against Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone.
The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO endorsed Lamb in December, just a few weeks after he won the Democratic nomination for the seat. The local chapter of the Service Employees International Union is hosting an endorsement event with Lamb Saturday, but it has already been working on his behalf. United Steelworkers, which is based in Pittsburgh, also has been active in the race, as has the local chapter of United Mine Workers of America.
Local union leaders agree: The matchup between Lamb and Saccone is an ideal contrast for their membership. Lamb has prioritized issues central to these workers, including health care, infrastructure and miners’ pensions, while Saccone has a record of supporting anti-union measures in the state legislature.
Saccone helped draft a bill to end paid leave for teachers who take time out of the classroom to work for their unions, and voted for a bill last year that would have prevented public employees from automatically deducting contributions to union political action committees from their paychecks, a measure local union leaders rallied against. In 2013, a local group advocating “right to work” legislation endorsed Saccone.
“We couldn’t have gotten two more different candidates in terms of the labor movement,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. He said Saccone declined to fill out the questionnaire seeking the union’s endorsement, which made backing Lamb early an easy decision.
Winning the race itself will be anything but easy. National Republicans have launched an all-out blitz in the district, with both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visiting on behalf of Saccone, and outside groups spending millions against Lamb. They’re revving up Trump supporters to get behind Saccone – a poll at the beginning of this year showed the president with a 54 percent/39 percent approval/disapproval rate in the district, much better than his numbers nationally.
Republicans are also highlighting how the middle class benefits from their tax cuts, hoping Democratic opposition could be a wedge for middle-class and working-class voters. A super PAC allied with Paul Ryan released an ad Wednesday linking Lamb to Nancy Pelosi, and highlighting her remark calling the middle-class benefits from the cuts “crumbs.”
In many ways, Saccone is relying on a similar dynamic that helped propel Trump in 2016: winning working-class voters who go against the endorsements of union leaders. But union leaders are skeptical.
“Even if someone were to believe Donald Trump is still their guy … it’s hard to translate that to Rick Saccone,” said Ed Yankovich, a leader of the local mine workers’ union.
Democrats acknowledge Lamb is an underdog, and don’t think support from union members alone will put him over the top in this district, where the party didn’t even run a candidate in the last two cycles. But in a special election in mid-March, a sustained effort to get out the vote among union members could be a critical piece of a winning coalition.
Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist who managed a special election campaign in a nearby district in 2010, said labor union households made up a disproportionate share of the electorate in that race, and he predicted between 20 percent and 25 percent of the vote share could come from union members. Mikus said that could be higher if an aggressive voter mobilization campaign bears fruit.
Union strategy in this race mirrors labor’s national goals. Trumka said in the briefing with reporters last year he hoped for the “most robust” member-to-member program in the union’s history. Bloomgindale said that the failure to establish such a program in Pennsylvania in 2016 cost them support. He also blamed Democrats broadly, saying Clinton’s economic policies never reached working-class voters.
“In Pennsylvania in the last two weeks, basically Hillary’s campaign was ‘I’m not Donald Trump; look how horrible he is to these women,’” Bloomingdale said. “And he is, and was, but people care about jobs first.”
National Democrats have tried to prioritize that economic message, but have struggled to break through Trump’s outsize control of the news cycle. Congressional Democrats last year unveiled their “Better Deal” agenda, which focused on jobs and wages, and in November they added ambitious pro-union plans to that agenda, calling for a federal law allowing private collective bargaining and a ban on state “right to work” laws, the Washington Post reported at the time.
Tim Waters, the political director of United Steelworkers, said he’s seen positive signs that Democrats are refocusing on core issues for workers, and praised Lamb’s attention to those issues in his campaign. But he said it needs to be a sustained effort this year and beyond if Democrats want to convince voters there would be action behind the rhetoric. If not, he added, they risk losing these voters again this year, and potentially for good.
“Talking about coming up with an economic message and actually taking it out and being consistent pushing and fighting for that agenda, those are two different things,” Waters said. “You can talk about it all day long, but you have to get out there and show voters that have lost confidence in that.”
The early efforts may help set the stage for November in Pennsylvania, where Democrats are targeting several Republican House seats while defending an incumbent senator. Democrats are also defending Senate seats and targeting House districts in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and West Virginia, all states with similar levels of union membership.
Rosenthal, the former AFL-CIO political director, who also worked in the Labor Department under Bill Clinton, said the economic message will be critical in those states, where an anti-Trump wave won’t be enough to sustain candidates. He said voters often struggle to define Democrats’ economic principles, and that it would take a “comprehensive” effort from top to bottom in the party to change that.
“You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, and people are beginning to crawl,” Rosenthal said. “They’re taking the first steps in doing what needs to be done.”
Outside Pittsburgh, Waters said there are signs of enthusiasm for Lamb that mirror enthusiasm they saw from union members in Alabama and the western part of Virginia in elections last year. Whether that enthusiasm translates into votes for Lamb next month remains an open question. If it does, local leaders in Pennsylvania hope national Democrats take notice.
“In our view this election is really a microcosm for the stakes of working people across the country and is a sign of the things to come in the midterms,” said Matt Yarnell, president of the local SEIU chapter.
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously said Donald Trump won 48 percent of union households in 2016. The correct figure is 42 percent.