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Can Unions Push Conor Lamb to an Unlikely Victory in Pennsylvania?

Organized labor has deployed ground operation to boost 18th District Democrat

A campaign sign for Democrat Conor Lamb outside a painters union training center in Carnegie, Pa. The center is one of four union buildings where volunteers gather to campaign for him. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)
A campaign sign for Democrat Conor Lamb outside a painters union training center in Carnegie, Pa. The center is one of four union buildings where volunteers gather to campaign for him. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)

PITTSBURGH — After a Tuesday rally for Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb at the Carpenters Training Center here, Preston Sparks stood outside, holding a clipboard as he filled out a form.

But he wasn’t signing up with the House candidate’s campaign. Instead he’s volunteering with local unions, who have launched a coordinated ground game to support Lamb ahead of the March 13 special election in the 18th District.

“Somebody’s got to help,” said Sparks, a 62-year-old carpenter from Bear Rocks.

Roughly two dozen unions are mobilizing workers like Sparks in the final days of the race to help Lamb do the improbable — win.

A Democrat has not represented the area since 2002, after districts were redrawn. And Republican nominees have carried the district by double digits in the past three presidential elections.

But the former federal prosecutor has a fighting chance against GOP state Rep. Rick Saccone next week, thanks in part to energized Democrats and help from organized labor.

“I know the hard work that every one of you is doing out there in the streets and on the phone banks,” Lamb told union workers gathered at the rally. “You are the heart and soul of this campaign.”

Lamb has attempted to appeal to union workers by embracing labor groups, which have deep roots in southwestern Pennsylvania. And he has tried to balance their social conservatism by distancing himself from national Democrats, saying he would not support Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic leader in the House.

Tuesday’s election will be a test of that strategy in GOP areas with working-class voters. It could also test the political power of organized labor — and whether union leaders can rally members around a Democrat at a time when predominantly white, blue-collar workers have been fleeing the party.

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“I think the fact that it’s this close shows that they’re already having an effect,” Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist based in southwestern Pennsylvania, said of the union effort. “And if Conor Lamb wins, this labor is going to be a huge part of it.”

On the ground

Two miles down the road from the rally is a local International Union of Painters and Allied Trades training center in Carnegie. It’s one of four union buildings in different corners of the 18th District hosting phone banks and organizing canvassing efforts.

Maps of the district line three of the four walls in one room, where stacks of papers cover the table and a “Steelworkers for Lamb” sign rests on the window pane. Volunteers meet here after work and on weekends to phone their fellow union members and knock on doors.

The union effort for Lamb began in earnest with a Feb. 7 meeting at a steamfitters union, as a winter storm pummeled the area.

Tim Waters, the national political director for the United Steelworkers, thought the meeting might have been canceled. But he drove by, just in case.

“I show up and there’s a packed parking lot, people pulling in behind me and a room full of people,” said Waters, who lives in the 18th District. More than 70 leaders from various unions started to strategize on turning out their members for Lamb.

Steelworkers make up the largest segment of union members in the district — nearly 18,000 voters are in steelworker union households, according to Waters. Roughly 80,000 people in the district are union members or members of union households.

Waters and Mikus, the strategist, estimated union members tend to comprise 20 percent to 25 percent of the electorate —and that percentage needs to increase to 30 or higher to make a difference for Lamb.

Over the past month, unions have been heavily targeting 30,000 of their members by phone, in their neighborhoods and at their work sites, arguing that Lamb will fight for organized labor.

A script at a phone bank in Carnegie suggests the following message for a voter who is undecided: “Conor Lamb believes that America needs strong unions for working people to survive,” and Lamb supports Social Security and Medicare.

“The word ‘union’ comes out of his mouth,” Giles Grinko, a lead coordinator for the unions’ election effort, said as he sat in a classroom at the painters union building. The fast-talking organizer explained he’s seen more enthusiasm among members than ever before.

At the carpenters rally down the road, workers said they were backing Lamb because he would protect their unions, who advocate for retirement and health care benefits.

“He sounds like he’s going to be on our side,” said Jeff Paczkowski, a 46-year-old carpenter from South Hills, who said Lamb spoke at their union meeting two weeks ago.

But Saccone is not worried that the unions organizing for Lamb will be successful.

“The leadership will do that, but I talk to union members everyday,” the GOP nominee told reporters Wednesday before meeting with natural gas workers in Canonsburg. “They know who they want to vote for. They’ll vote for me.”

Labor issues

Grinko and others say the district’s previous congressman, GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned amid scandal in October, cultivated a good relationship with unions. Grinko even briefly switched his party registration in 2012 to back Murphy in a Republican primary.

Mike DeVanney, a GOP consultant who worked for Murphy, said the former congressman built his career in part through relationships with labor and appealing to Democrats in his district.

The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO even endorsed Murphy in his last election, though Murphy was unopposed. Now the group is backing Lamb. (Saccone did not submit a questionnaire for the endorsement.)

Saccone has said rank-and-file members support him because of his focus on bringing jobs back through fewer regulations and lower taxes.

“I was voted in, in a 76 percent Democratic district in a highly union area for my state House races,” he said. “So I wouldn’t be here if union workers didn’t vote for me.”

Saccone was referring to people like John Cosky, a 62-year-old construction worker who is affiliated with the carpenters’ union. Cosky, a Republican, is voting for Saccone.

“A lot of people lambast the guy for it, but [Saccone] was Trump before Trump was. Just that agenda of job creation,” Cosky said Wednesday morning after breakfast at J&S Diner in Cecil.

But union leaders say Saccone’s record in the state House will hurt him with their members. He was endorsed by Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Work Committee in 2014 and he voted against a bill that expanded access to unemployment compensation.

“They don’t forget that,” Grinko said of union workers, noting painters rely on unemployment when work is scarce in the winter. “It’s not a Trump issue. It’s who’s doing best for their paycheck and who hurt them the most.”

Broader lessons?

So what can Democrats hoping to win back blue-collar workers and union members learn from this race? Focus on the economy, leaders and workers said.

“We’re hoping the Dems make their message a more resounding one to working families. That’s why we’re kind of candidate-by-candidate in organized labor,” said Scott Duhamel, the painters’ union’s eastern region political director.

Duhamel, who traveled to the 18th District to observe the union operation, said Democrats “missed the boat” by not having on a clear economic message.

And now union members, once Democratic allies, are sometimes inclined to back Republican candidates.

“Bipartisanship is the new thing in organized labor, more than ever before,” Duhamel said. “And why are we doing it? Because our members are demanding it. And plus we’re sick of supporting weak-ass Dems just because they have a ‘D’ in front of their names.”

Voters, as well as the party, need to prioritize economic issues, said Paczkowski, the 46-year-old carpenter.

“Our generation, you got to learn our wallet matters,” he said. Paczkowski said he is an avid hunter and gun collector, but gun control does not drive his vote.

“Guns don’t pay my bills,” he said.

Waters, the steelworkers’ union leader, said having a candidate who fits the district is key.

“I think it’s just a good lesson about why these national parties can’t have a one-size-fits-all plan,” he said.

One national Democratic strategist cautioned not to draw too many conclusions from one special election.

The strategist pointed out that even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans here, these Democrats have been supporting the GOP for several years. Democrats hoping to flip 24 seats and win back the House are focused on Republican-held districts that voted for Hillary Clinton, or GOP districts that President Donald Trump carried but where voters had previously supported President Barack Obama.

It’s not clear whether Trump’s popularity in this district and his appeal to union workers will translate into support for Saccone. But Trump’s recent push for tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum may resonate with local steelworkers. 

Both Lamb and Saccone signaled support for the proposed tariffs during a debate Saturday night.  

Still, Democrats in the 18th District are energized. And some of them include union workers, who have experience organizing and can tap into an army of volunteers. In a low-turnout special election, that ground effort could make a difference.

“The advantage of having the support of labor, particularly the building trades in an election like this, is actually getting volunteers,” said DeVanney, the GOP consultant. “This is the type of race where those type of voter contacts are going to be impactful.”

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