LEBANON, Pa. — Sean Parnell did something few challengers or political novices do. He outraised the incumbent House Democrat he is challenging even though the 2020 election cycle is not expected to be kind to Republicans.
Parnell, a U.S. Army combat veteran, raised an impressive $717,364 in the second quarter compared to Rep. Conor Lamb, a fellow military man, who raised $444,184 in his bid to defend his Western Pennsylvania House seat.
“An incumbent getting outraised by a challenger is often a red flag in House and Senate races, and Parnell was one of just a handful of Republicans in competitive districts to outraise a Democratic incumbent,’ said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis from the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “That’s a feather in Parnell’s cap.”
Lamb’s first victory came in the spring of 2018 when he won a narrow special election race for the old 18th Congressional District; Lamb won again, this time easily, in a newly created suburban seat in the 2018 general election over fellow Congressman Keith Rothfus, a Republican. Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court redrew the districts mid-cycle in 2018, a move that many argued favored Democrats. Currently, the Pennsylvania House delegation partisan split is nine Republicans and nine Democrats.
As Kondik cautioned: “Parnell is going to have to run a strong campaign to win as a challenger in this district, particularly if the overall environment for Republicans is poor. Money is a key part of running a strong campaign, although it’s not the only thing. In the second quarter of 2018, 56 Democrats outraised Republican incumbents – but less than half of them won, so it’s not always a sign that an incumbent is going to lose.”
The district is tailored for either candidate. It ranges from the culturally conservative working class and union households in Beaver County who have seen an economic resurgence thanks to the new ethane cracker plant under construction, to the rural and exurban voters in Butler County, to the heavily populated progressive and wealthy Mt. Lebanon suburb in Allegheny County that Lamb calls home.
One possible hurdle for Parnell is that this district, because of those suburban voters, may be one of those places that switch from voting for Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020. Trump won the district by some 10,000 votes in 2016; Sen. Pat Toomey, who ran that same year, won it by just over 16,000 votes.
If Joe Biden continues his lead in the polls and does end up winning the district, Parnell is going to have to accomplish something that has been relatively rare the past few presidential election cycles: defeat an incumbent while the incumbent’s presidential nominee is prevailing. And when that has happened in recent years, it’s often because the incumbent had serious problems, but Lamb hasn’t had a scandal of at all. His problem is something else: The Republicans – and this is not always the case – seem to have nominated the right candidate to oppose him.
The stress of the weak Lamb fundraising numbers, which placed him 29th in cash on hand and 26th overall in the list of the 31 Democratic House members defending seats in Trump-won districts, showed signs of weighing on the campaign when Coleman Lamb, a campaign official and brother of the congressman, retweeted the sentiment this weekend that Parnell can “burn in hell and die.”
While this is a race most forecasters have tagged as advantage Lamb, his lackluster efforts in raising funds can easily be a sign of a campaign not taking its opponent seriously, or looking past this election to another one. That’s a characteristic most seasoned strategists warn can allow a challenger an opening, in particular a challenger as strong as Parnell, who is not always in lock step with an unpopular president and displays a willingness to ask voters how he can earn their vote.
NOTE: Salena Zito is the author, with Brad Todd, of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.” (Todd is a campaign strategist for Sean Parnell.)