What Comes First: the Party or the Candidate?

Democrat Conor Lamb is the U.S. Representative-elect from Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district. On March 13, 2018, Lamb received 627 more votes than his Republican competitor, Rick Saccone, who was supported by Trump. In the 2016 Presidential election, Trump carried this district by nearly 20 percent. Does this election suggest public dissatisfaction with the performance of the current Republican administration?

Conor Lamb was a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps and an Assistant U.S. Attorney from 2014 to 2017. He is a native of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and attended college and law school at the University of Pennsylvania. His campaign priorities emphasized modern, reliable infrastructure, effective job-training programs, affordable health care, and the protection of Medicaid and Social Security. Unlike many other Democratic campaigns, Lamb’s campaign minimized discussion of identity politics.

Almost $10.7 million was spent by outside groups to promote Republican Rick Saccone. Before the election, Conor Lamb had spent $3.1 of $3.9 million raised for his campaign, while Saccone spent $6,150,000 more than the $600,000 raised.

A political party’s ideal purpose is to uphold a consistent and cohesive set of beliefs and goals. A party is effective and successful when it can reliably reflect the concerns of its voters. The purpose of a political party is lost when its voters believe that the party’s actions are inconsistent and dishonorable. As of February 2018, Congressional approval ratings have dipped to 15 percent, reflecting a general disconnect between American citizens’ concerns and the actions of the American government. This dissatisfaction is not recent: over the past ten years, Congressional approval ratings have rarely exceeded 30%. This data suggests that American citizens believe the American political system has not successfully dealt with the interests of its citizens.

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States was a surprise to many prognosticators. Trump broke the mold of both parties by taking positions not held by either political party and by abandoning political correctness. While Lamb’s poise may differ greatly from Trump’s often brash declarations, both have successfully connected with their voters’ needs during a time when, as previously evidenced, American citizens have felt their concerns unmet. “I will work with anyone to protect our people and bring good jobs here,” Lamb promised on his campaign site. One of Donald Trump’s main campaign priorities was to impose tariffs on outside goods and renegotiate the NAFTA and TPP, in hopes of encouraging the growth of American manufacturing jobs. Trump’s campaign stressed the protection of Social Security, which Lamb’s campaign also highlighted. Their campaigns exhibited the ability to sympathize with the “blue-collar” American, and connect the issues relevant to them with beneficial solutions.

Despite the similarities between Trump and Lamb’s positions and the voter audience that they drew, one question remains. Why would the group that voted for Trump in the 2016 election not vote for Rick Saccone, whom Trump supported? Perhaps these voters found hope in another candidate who can possibly carry out what Trump has thus far been unable to. In the first year of his Presidency, Trump has been entangled in controversies and has been negotiating within the constraints of the two-party system that many Americans are dissatisfied with. Voters may be standing behind a candidate who they believe will give them a second chance to successfully handle their concerns.

Perhaps the ability of a candidate to speak to their voters transcends the label of a political party. In times of political uncertainty, voters can look towards individual leaders to address their concerns.