HARRISBURG, Pa. – In 2018, Conor Lamb wasn’t just a candidate — he was a symbol.
Barely a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, Democrats were desperate to show they could reconnect with the white, working-class voters who had turned against them. By eking out victory in a congressional district stretching across western Pennsylvania's steel and coal country, Lamb proved they could — and gave the party hope.
“This is the guy who is going to lead us to a future your kids are going to love!” Joe Biden said as he campaigned for Lamb then.
Three years later, Biden is president and Pennsylvania returned to the Democrats' column in last year's presidential election, while Lamb’s political future is surprisingly murky.
His district may all but disappear — or become more hostile — in redistricting before the next election.
Lamb also has said he will consider running for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat in 2022, but the field isn’t clearing for him.
Instead, a racially and ideologically diverse lineup of candidates is preparing to run, including the state's progressive lieutenant governor, two Black state lawmakers from Philadelphia and what Democrats expect will be at least one woman officeholder from Philadelphia's left-leaning suburbs.
Lamb’s dilemma is a window into the Democratic Party's debate over how to win elections in Pennsylvania and across battlegrounds.
For all Biden's appeals to the white, working class, the president didn't win Pennsylvania by recapturing Trump counties that had once been solidly Democratic.
He stanched the bleeding in some, but Biden was primarily boosted by strong turnout among urbanites and swing voters in more diverse, growing suburb s that’s left many in the party clamoring to elevate candidates who reflect those communities.
On Tuesday, Biden will return to one of those Pennsylvania suburbs — Delaware County, just across the border from his home state — to highlight the benefits of his $1.9 trillion plan to defeat the coronavirus and boost the economy.
Lamb, 36, rejects any suggestion that Democrats should stop chasing the voters in western Pennsylvania who have drifted from the party.
“It’s kind of amazing that we even have to ask what the Democratic Party has to do to appeal to working-class people,” Lamb said. “In my mind, the question contains its own answer.”
Lamb argues that Democrats should continue to reach beyond city limits and inner-ring suburbs. And when they do, they must talk about issues in plain language that shows how it helps people in their everyday needs, he argues.
“Rather than talking about health care reform, you would talk about how are we going to get someone’s insulin price down,” Lamb said. “How are we going to get someone’s Social Security check up again and not have it eaten up by Medicare premiums.”
With Lamb's district in the middle of the nation's most prolific natural gas reservoir, he is especially focused on his party's messaging on climate and fossil fuels, pressing party leaders to understand the importance of the exploration industry to the economy and families, while urging distance from the left's calls to end “fracking” or fossil fuels.
He also has tried to take middle-of-the-road positions on guns and abortion, a combination that Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey carried into 2006′s election when he won the seat by beating an unpopular incumbent.
But moderate positions might not fly in a primary if the Democratic Party continues to shift away from white working-class voters outside of Pennsylvania's faster-growing cities and suburbs.
As a whole, population growth in Pennsylvania is slower than in other states, meaning the state is all-but certain to lose a congressional seat.
Growth in Lamb’s region, southwestern Pennsylvania, is stagnant, making his seat a target for mapmakers. That could mean Lamb ends up in a redder district or in a race against another member of Congress — or both.
“There are winners and losers there, and the winners are the southeastern corner and the losers are western and northern Pennsylvania,” said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Pennsylvania are keenly aware of how the top of their ticket often looks: white and male, despite the party's success with women voters and voters of color.
So far, Pennsylvania has never elected a governor or U.S. senator who was female or a racial minority. Pennsylvania's Democratic Party, in fact, has only twice nominated a woman for one of those offices and never a non-white candidate.
Christine Jacobs, executive director of Represent PA, which helps recruit and support female candidates, is actively encouraging women to run for U.S. Senate.
Jacobs says she has nothing against male candidates, but, she said, “I want somebody who’s going to think like a woman."
Those candidates could include two from suburban Philadelphia: U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County and Val Arkoosh, the chairwoman in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania's third-most populous county.
Another candidate could be Sharif Street, the vice chair of the state Democratic Party and a Black state senator from Philadelphia.
As the son of a former two-term Philadelphia mayor, Street could be a force in the big Democratic city in a primary election.
Perhaps Lamb's biggest challenge in a primary would be Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who also hails from the Pittsburgh area and could be a rival for hometown votes and union endorsements.
The plainspoken and unconventional Fetterman cuts a more progressive figure than Lamb.
He is an outspoken advocate of legalizing marijuana and, as a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016, endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president and signed a pledge advocating a moratorium on fracking.
Fetterman has since joined the Democratic Party mainstream in defending the gas industry — popular with blue-collar unions — as a transition to a clean energy future.
Fetterman is also a something of a political media star, ever-present on cable TV. But Lamb may be more battle-tested than any potential rival.
As a veteran of three congressional campaigns in barely three years, Lamb has repeatedly survived the Republican Party's weaponization of the Democratic Party's left-wing — accusing him of defunding the police and banning fracking, for instance.
As he weighs a messy Democratic primary, Lamb is careful not to criticize those policies and instead focused on how they should be better communicated.
“What I think hurts is the perception that the Democratic Party endorses policies and ideas that are hurtful to the way people live their lives,” Lamb said. The challenge ahead, he says, is to hold the two wings of the party together.
That means "a commitment to trying understand each other and moving forward together where we can and I think we’re doing a good job of that.”
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/timelywriter.