Several complicated factors led to the extremely narrow win that Democrat Conor Lamb eked out over Republican Rick Saccone in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district Tuesday night.
One common theme in the analysis of the race has been the notion that Lamb succeeded in a deep-red district because he is a “Blue Dog” Democrat. According to this view, Lamb persuaded moderate voters and some Republicans to support him by presenting himself as somewhat pro-gun and economically sensible, and by moderating his stance on culture-war issues — or avoiding such issues entirely.
But on abortion, Lamb is a far cry from moderate, by his own admission. Lamb has invoked the common “personally opposed to abortion” line, which has given him a reputation as occupying a reasonable middle ground on the issue. But in practice, his position is just as extreme as that of the most pro-abortion members of his party.
When asked whether he would’ve supported the 20-week abortion ban that Congress recently considered, for example, Lamb responded that he would’ve voted against it. This bill, which is based on scientific evidence showing that fetuses can feel pain five months into pregnancy, is supported by nearly two-thirds of Americans. According to a January Marist poll, support for the bill increased by 4 percent from the previous year, and, fascinatingly, over half of Democrats and half of those who identify as pro-choice also support it.
So most Americans — and most Democrats and most pro-choice advocates — oppose elective abortion procedures that dismember near-viable fetuses when they can feel pain. In contrast, Lamb supports the right to abort near-viable fetuses. Nonetheless, he has maintained a reputation as a socially moderate, even pro-life candidate. The secret to his success on this front was his decision to follow the trail blazed by Catholic Democrats such as Ted Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, and Joe Biden before him.
Kennedy, Biden, and others developed a clever way of maintaining the support of pro-life Catholics while keeping their place within the Left’s changing political landscape.
Decades ago, most Democratic politicians were pro-life, until they slowly “evolved” on the issue, after Roe v. Wade, to support nearly all abortions. Most Catholic Democrats — with the notable exception of former Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey Sr. — evolved right along with the rest of their party. But Kennedy, Biden, and others developed a clever way of maintaining the support of pro-life Catholics while keeping their place within the Left’s changing political landscape.
Mario Cuomo delivered a landmark speech in 1984 at the University of Notre Dame, explaining that he could govern New York as a faithful Catholic while still respecting the fact that abortion was legal. In his remarks, Cuomo pioneered a vision whereby a Catholic Democratic politician could attest to his personal opposition to abortion; simultaneously, he need not “impose on other people restrictions they find unacceptable.” “Our personal view of morality ought not to be considered a relevant basis for discrimination,” he added.
Prominent Democrats frequently made similar arguments when they supported pro-abortion legislation, despite their Catholic faith and previous pro-life rhetoric. In 1971, Kennedy wrote to a constituent, “When history looks back to this era, it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough . . . to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.” Yet after Roe in 1973, he began to consistently support abortion rights as a U.S. senator. With Biden’s help, he went so far as to tank the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork, in part over Bork’s belief that the Roe decision was based on a flawed reading of the Constitution.
Conor Lamb, also a Catholic, closely followed the example of these successful Democratic politicians: He has been able to maintain the benefits of identifying as Catholic while also winning support from the pro-abortion coalition, now a powerful wing of their party.
Pittsburgh is well-known for being home to many Catholics, and Pennsylvania’s 18th district covers much of the city’s suburbs, though not the city itself. Perhaps worried about alienating these voters, Lamb didn’t even list abortion as an issue on his website for much of the campaign. When asked directly about the issue, he offered only smokescreens:
I just want to say, I don’t use the term “pro-life” to describe what I personally believe, because that’s a political term. It’s not one that you learn in Catholic school or anywhere else in the church.
And in explaining his opposition to the 20-week abortion ban, Lamb said, referring to Catholics: “We believe that life begins at conception, but as a matter of separation of church and state, I think a woman has the right to choose under the law, so I would vote against [the bill].” Sounds familiar.
Though it’s impossible to know what Lamb personally believes about abortion, it is evident that he dreaded offending powerhouses such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood, which pour millions into lobbying for expansive abortion rights. Even now, NARAL is propping up a progressive challenger to pro-life Democratic incumbent Dan Lipinski in Illinois’s third congressional district. Lamb — who soon will have to win a primary contest in a brand-new district — surely fears the influence of these groups.
As a result, Lamb made it appear as though he’s neatly balancing on a tightrope between pro-life Catholics and the pro-abortion stance of his party. In reality, he supports the most extreme pro-abortion positions even as he gestures toward the middle ground and his Catholic faith. This isn’t moderation; it’s dishonesty. And, as it has for pro-choice Catholic Democrats for decades, the ploy appears to have worked.