Pennsylvania and Populism: Lessons Missed

In all the theorizing about Democrat Conor Lamb’s narrow victory in last week’s special congressional election in Western Pennsylvania, here is one important overlooked factor: the Republicans abandoned the winning populist formula that for the last 16 years had proven successful in this heavily blue-collar district, which President Trump won by 20 points. Instead, the Republicans ran a solidly anti-union, traditional candidate. But don’t expect this to get much play in either the mainstream or even in much of the “conservative” media, for whom the political Holy Grail is the support of the “dynamic, moving forward,” GDP-generating upper-status caste Hillary Clinton was gushing over in Mumbai while Lamb was winning the votes of steelworkers outside of Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District is a classic “Reagan Democrat” district, where the party of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy still holds a 46 percent to 41 percent registration edge even though Republicans now win most, but not all, of the elections. Senator Bob Casey, Jr., carried the district by 11 points in ousting Rick Santorum in 2006, when Casey was still seen as a culturally conservative, pro-life Democrat in the mold of his father, the late Governor Bob Casey. In his 2012 reelection campaign, however, when his liberal colors had become clearer, Casey, Jr. lost the 18th by nine points. The last Democrat to represent the area in Congress, Frank Mascara, who served from 1995 through 2002, got his college degree at 41 and opposed gun control and abortion. Some 23 percent of the district’s voters are union members, compared to 11 percent nationwide.

God-Fearing Democrats
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts gave a flavor of the district at a Lamb rally the Sunday before the election, in
words that would give the vapors to Democrats (and more than a few Republicans) in Manhattan, Silicon Valley, and upper-middle-class drawing rooms across the country: “We’re God-fearing folks down in these coal fields. I believe in God. I believe in the Bible. And so do you. And we don’t apologize to anybody for that.” Lamb, he said, is “a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, Social Security-believing, health care-creating, and sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat!”

Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who was elected in 2002 and resigned last fall after getting caught up in a tawdry sex scandal, had the perfect record for the district. While reliably right-wing on social issues and even most fiscal issues, Murphy had a lifetime AFL-CIO score of 44 percent, making him one of the most labor-friendly Republicans in the House. He opposed “right-to-work,” backedcard-check” legislation allowing unions to obtain certification by petition signatures rather than elections, and was endorsed by the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO in his unopposed 2016 reelection bid. And, whatever his personal failings, Murphy, a psychologist, made his mark in Congress not as a cheerleader for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his brand of economics but as the leading advocate for mental health reform—including eased standards for involuntary treatment and increased funding—opposed by liberal civil libertarians and conservative budget cutters alike.

In other words, Murphy was a Trumpian long before Trump. He was defying some Republican economic orthodoxy while reaching out to union members and stressing the kind of right-of-center issues that appeal to normal people, not just Ayn Rand buffs. “If Tim Murphy wouldn’t have gotten caught up in this scandal, I’d vote for him every time,” a coal miner who voted for Lamb told the Huffington Post. A candidate in his mold almost certainly would have held the seat.

Republican By-the-Numbers
By contrast, while GOP candidate Rick Saccone
said he “was Trump before Trump was Trump,” unlike Murphy, he wasn’t. Rather, other than supporting Trump’s tariff plan (de rigueur in southwest Pennsylvania) he ran on his record as a traditional anti-union fiscal conservative.

In the state legislature, Saccone had not only supported right-to-work but opposed transportation infrastructure spending and expanded unemployment compensation for seasonal construction workers. Despite representing an area hard hit by the opioid epidemic, he told the mother of an addict at a hearing last year, “We don’t have any more funding, OK? We’re going to try to cut the budget” (a quote that shocked Kellyanne Conway, the Trump Administration point person on opioids, when Democrats inevitably unearthed it).

On the stump, Saccone dodged questions on bipartisan federal legislation (backed by neighboring West Virginia Republicans) to bail out the teetering UMW pension fund. And while Lamb triangulated by rejecting the Left’s radical $15 minimum wage proposal, Saccone held fast to the fiscal Right by refusing to back any increase in Pennsylvania’s $7.25 minimum.

Sure, some of these positions have arguable merit. And a few of Saccone’s other anti-union votes were, I think, clearly correct. I don’t mean to deify unions the way some fiscal conservatives demonize them. Having spent much of my career in government, I’m all too familiar with the sins of public-sector employee unions in particular. But my point here is political, and—if only for political reasons—it shouldn’t be a radical position in the Republican Party to acknowledge that, on balance, the labor movement has done far more good than harm. Or to defend the social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare (not the post-’60s “welfare rights” expansion of these programs) that the unions fought for.

Finding the “Sweet Spot”
As a
reluctant Trump supporter, the (not always fulfilled) hope of a Trump presidency to me was, more than any other GOP figure, he understood all of that. He understood the GOP is an increasingly working-class party, that much of the party’s base is “part of the ‘47 percent’” that Mitt Romney vilely dismissed as “takers,” and that “blue-collar conserv­atism . . . built on a broad range of social values issues” and featuring “accommo­dation of the economic interests of the party’s voters” (as when Richard Nixon reached out to his “hard-hat” supporters by appointing the head of the building trades union as Secretary of Labor) had “turned the GOP from a perma­nent minority party of the country club set to a de facto majority party.”

The appeal of this political approach isn’t just limited to heavily working-class districts like PA-18. As F. H. Buckley has written, drawing on recent Voter Study Group data showing that 73 percent of voters are liberal on economic issues such as taxes and inequality but 52 percent are conservative on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and immigration, “the sweet spot in American politics, the place where elections are won, is the socially conservative and economically liberal quadrant.”

By contrast, the fashionable “socially liberal but economically conservative libertarians” represent less than 4 percent of the electorate. You wouldn’t know this from listening to the elites and the big donors in either party, however, because they tend to be clustered in that 4 percent—“an army of generals without any troops behind them,” as Buckley calls them.

Because of this clustering, we’re likely to be hearing a lot of the usual hand-wringing from both parties’ chattering classes in the wake of PA-18 about how the GOP has to win back Hillary Clinton’s affluent professionals. But the culturally trendy upper and upper-middle classes have been moving away from the Republican Party for at least 30, if not 50, years, long before Donald Trump came down the escalator. At this point, to be blunt, they’re never going to vote for us again no matter how many third trimester babies we abort, transgenders we let into the girls’ locker room, and illegal aliens we give sanctuary to. How about instead we ease up on the union-bashing and start looking out for the interests of the people who actually support us?

Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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About Dennis Saffran

Dennis Saffran is a Queens, N.Y.-based appellate attorney and political and policy writer whose work has appeared in City Journal, The Federalist, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter @dennisjsaffran.