Conor Lamb was every Democrat’s favorite Democrat in March 2018, a star in the making. He won one of the first congressional contests after Donald Trump took the White House, a special election in a part of western Pennsylvania that the president had carried by nearly 20 points.
So, when Sen. Patrick Toomey announced he wouldn’t run for reelection this year, it only made sense for Lamb to seek the open seat. The former federal prosecutor and Marine had a flawless record in battleground districts, a huge donor list and a Pepsodent smile. What could stop him?
Lamb went on to finish a distant second in May’s primary to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. Pennsylvania Democrats may be regretting their decision to back the less polished and more progressive candidate now that the race against Republican Mehmet Oz is coming down to the wire.
As for Lamb, he has no regrets — at least, not about the decision to abandon his House seat for a shot at the Senate. He does rue leaving without helping to reverse what he sees as Congress’ cultural decline.
He isn’t sure what’s next, besides spending more time with his two young kids. He won’t rule out any future run for office. “I’m only 38 years old,” he said.
This interview has been edited and condensed. (Full disclosure: The topic of rugby did not come up, even though this reporter and Lamb both played at the University of Pennsylvania, overlapping for a year in 2005.)
Q: Is there any part of you that’s happy things ended the way they did, since now you can leave the gridlock of Washington behind?
A: I wouldn’t put it that way, because the day-in, day-out grind of a job like this can become worthwhile in an instant.
I mean, none of us thought the Inflation Reduction Act was going to happen, and then it just did. And we were all in place to vote for it because of the hard work we put in up to that point.
Leaving is not easy, but I don’t regret running for the Senate at all. Until we change the math in the Senate, it’s going to be really hard for us to make the changes we need in this country, and I felt I could give us the best chance to win in a pretty purple and competitive state. But our party was in the mood for someone like John [Fetterman] this year, and it was their choice to make.
Q: You’ve caught flak for criticizing some of the progressives in your party. Did the media make too much of that, or were you eager to hash out your differences publicly?
A: The most prominent example of what you’re talking about is an interview I did with Astead Herndon of The New York Times, which appeared alongside one he did with [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. She mentioned me as someone who didn’t run a good campaign in 2020.
I’ve never gone out of my way to be in a fight or disagreement with her, but if we’re going to have a debate about what it takes to be successful, I’m more than happy to join.
AOC doesn’t know the first thing about running for Congress in a competitive district. She’s in a deep blue district. She knows a lot about a lot of issues, and that’s fine, but when people like her opine on what front-line members should be doing, they’ve never had that experience. And if they tried, they would probably lose.
One of the things she and I disagree on is the issue of fracking. She wants to ban it nationwide. I don’t disagree with that because I’m a moderate and I’m afraid to take that position. I just think it’s a horrible idea. It would make bills more expensive for average people and drive away manufacturing jobs and make us more subject to the whims of people in Saudi Arabia.
The moderate point of view doesn’t get the same treatment as the progressive point of view in the media, because they tend to think if you hold an opinion that is favorable to any sort of private industry, you must be in the pocket of that industry. Well, I’ve never accepted a dime of corporate PAC contributions from anybody.
Q: How do you feel about where America is going?
A: The concern I have is that a lot of times, it’s the people who are at the two extremes who are the most committed to accomplishing their goals. I think about Jan. 6 a lot in that respect. The strongest followers of President Trump were so committed to seeing him stay in office that they killed police officers over it and wounded and maimed hundreds of them.
I obviously don’t think anyone who’s on the side of liberal democracy should go to that degree. But we should be more committed in other ways that actually refresh and build up the strength of this system. You can’t just sit back and be a spectator. You have to be involved in some way, whether it’s all the retired teachers who were writing postcards for me, or people who run for office themselves.
Everybody has now learned the stakes of this thing, and if you’re not in the game, you’re doing the wrong thing. Because we’re up against people who will do almost anything.
Q: What’s your biggest regret from your time in Washington?
A: Just that I came in 2018 very much wanting to make a positive change in the culture of this institution. And if you’re looking at it objectively, you would have to say that the House of Representatives is probably in a worse position today than it was when I got here in terms of partisanship, like the presence of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Whatever we have been doing is just not enough. And we’ve tried very hard, but as my mother-in-law would say, “The smallest act is greater than the grandest intention.”
Q: Let’s end on a high note. What’s something you’re proud of?
A: One is symbolic — being there in the early hours of Jan. 7 and casting a vote in support of upholding our democracy and the results of that election. It was a moment that the system held, and we should all be proud of that.
The other thing is the combination of the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. It represents almost everything I promised my constituents I would try to get done for them — upgrade our dilapidated infrastructure, use American steel and union labor to do it, make investments in future technologies, and try to work on decarbonisation across the whole economy.
All the old industrial strength in western Pennsylvania joins with new investments and new life in those three bills. They’re going to take a long time to percolate and have an effect, but we’ll look back on this as a really important downpayment.
Last book you read? “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb” by Richard Rhodes. His original book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” was one of my all-time favorites.
In politics, can the ends justify the means? Yes. When I first stepped on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2018, I was struck by the fact that there are two paintings on each side of the speaker’s podium. One is George Washington, and one is General Lafayette. And I thought it was just an interesting reminder — these guys had to kill a lot of people for this country even to be born.
Your least popular opinion? As a Democratic member, probably that natural gas is an important fuel source that we’re not going to give up anytime soon. I actually think we should be encouraging it so we can export it to Europe instead of having them worry about Russian imports.
If you could change one thing about Congress, what would it be? If I had to pick one, it would be getting rid of the filibuster. It’s hard for the House to really originate much legislatively, because the filibuster is just such a high hurdle over there.
What’s next for you? I’m looking in so many different places. Unlike a lot of the party members, I’m only 38 years old. But at the same time, I’m married now and have two kids, so my whole life is a lot more complicated than it was.