Commentary: Will the suburbs embrace progressives? What results for two very different Pittsburgh-area Democrats show.

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President-elect Joe Biden’s victory hadn’t even been called before moderate Democrats –both at the state and federal level – began assigning blame to their progressive peers for tight margins in their own races. 

Rep. Abigail Spanberger – a moderate freshman Congresswoman from Virginia – recently stated that her too-close-for-comfort margin of victory was a result of the rhetoric of the more left-leaning members of the Democratic caucus, which was followed by rebukes from progressive members like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again...” Spanberger said on a heated, three-hour conference call with the Democratic House caucus. “We lost good members because of that.” 

Spanberger’s concerns were later echoed by Western Pennsylvania Congressman Conor Lamb, who told The Washington Post: “Spanberger was talking about something many of us are feeling today: We pay the price for these unprofessional and unrealistic comments about a number of issues, whether it is about the police or shale gas.”

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon. (Courtesy photo)

At least 10 congressional districts held by Democrats were flipped by Republicans, with more losses expected as four Democratic incumbents trail with votes still trickling in. But Democrats have managed to flip three Republican seats, giving Republicans a net gain of seven seats so far. Of those who lost or are behind, twelve are freshman members, elected as part of the historic “Blue Wave” in 2018. Others, like Lamb and Spanberger, just barely held on to their seats. 

These losses followed a bitter 2020 primary cycle for Democrats, in which three House Democratic incumbents lost the party’s nomination to challengers supporting progressive proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. All of the progressive challengers went on to win their races in the general election. Among the House Democrats not returning to Washington in January are members like Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee, and William Lacy Clay of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

Complaints like those made by Lamb and Spanberger weren’t exclusive to federal candidates. Emily Skopov, the Democratic candidate who lost her bid for Pennsylvania House District 28 (a district that has been held by Republicans since 1969), made similar remarks in a Twitter thread. 

“As a casualty/collateral damage of this offensively poor messaging, I cannot agree strongly enough.“ Skopov wrote, replying to a tweet from  a former staffer for Senator Bob Casey Jr. that criticized “tone deaf” politics from progressive legislators that he saw as hurting Democratic party in the state.  Skopov later apologized for the remarks and offered clarification, stating: “I’m not criticizing the progressive goals but the messaging.”

In the years since President Donald Trump took office, progressives have made significant inroads electorally, and the Pittsburgh area is no exception. In 2018, democratic socialists Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato defeated incumbent Democratic Reps. Dom (District 21) and Paul Costa (District 34) in bitter primary upsets. This cycle, Emily Kinkead – with an endorsement from a PAC founded by Rep. Lee – defeated incumbent Rep. Adam Ravenstahl in the June primary for the 20th District. 

Since taking office, Rep. Innamorato has been among the most progressive members of the state legislature, pushing for progressive policies like Medicare For All, environmental justice, and affordable housing. Recently, she was endorsed by Bernie Sanders.

U.S. Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Lawrenceville. (File photo)

U.S. Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Lawrenceville. (File photo)

As of Monday, November 16, Innamorato is outperforming Lamb in the portion of their districts that overlap. This includes overwhelmingly white and suburban areas north of the Allegheny River – Aspinwall, Etna, Millvale, O’Hara, Reserve, Ross, Shaler and Sharpsburg. Out of nearly 25,000 votes in the overlapping district, Innamorato received 321 more votes than Lamb and 358 more votes than the president-elect.  

It is possible that Innamorato simply ran a better race. Lamb’s campaign received criticism from Ocasio-Cortez for not spending enough money on Facebook advertising in the lead up to Election Day, which Lamb denied. Notably, Lamb’s opponent Sean Parnell outspent him in Facebook advertising by $101,800 in the last several months of the campaign. Candidates for General Assembly also have much smaller districts and considerably less ground to cover. It’s easier for them to reach a significant portion of voters without stretching resources thin. 

Another factor may be that Lamb faced a more competitive opponent than Innamorato. In the portions of their districts that overlap, Parnell received 139 more votes than Trump, while Innamorato’s opponent, John Waugh, received 683 fewer votes than Trump. 

Or maybe these results indicate underperformance by Lamb in areas that are potentially more progressive. Perhaps Lamb's attempts to appeal to moderate and conservative voters throughout the 17th Congressional District came at the cost of losing more progressive voters in portions of the district that usually favor Democrats. 

Regardless, the notion that progressivism inherently detracts from electability is false – at least here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, where  Innamorato has demonstrated that being progressive does not preclude the ability to resonate with white suburban voters.  

To imply otherwise is a disservice to the tens of thousands of voters here in our region – and millions across the country – who’ve made their will known this election cycle by voting for progressive candidates (Summer Lee, for instance, did not have a Republican challenger). Moreover, it is dismissive of the legitimate concerns voters in Democratic strongholds have about issues affecting their communities, like environmental discrimination and police brutality.

It would behoove centrist Democrats to recall that their progressive colleagues have the same job they do – to represent the interests of the communities that elected them. Constituents in moderate, Republican-leaning districts are not any more deserving of responsive representation than those in more progressive districts – without whom, Biden would not be president-elect. 

Representatives of progressive communities are not obligated to concede progressive values under the assumption that doing so will somehow benefit Democrats in more competitive districts. Just as Democrats running in moderate districts have to win over moderate voters, Democrats in progressive districts have to win over progressive voters. If your constituents can’t figure out the difference between your politics and Ocasio-Cortez’s, it’s on you to rectify that –not her. 

The eyes of the world fell on Pennsylvania during the presidential election, underscoring our disproportionate influence over the national political climate. If a candidate’s progressive platform can resonate with white suburban  voters here, what are the implications for electoral politics elsewhere? 

It’s been said that Democrats are a “big tent” party – we champion diversity as our core strength. In this moment of triumph over the forces of fear and bigotry, we would do well to resist unwarranted efforts to make the tent smaller.

Will Taylor is a Pittsburgh-based Democratic campaign professional with a master’s degree in political communication from American University. Previously, he was deputy campaign manager for Jerry Dickinson’s campaign in the 18th Congressional District. Reach Will on Twitter here: @1994willtaylor.

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