A tale of two districts: Lamb, Allred in convention spotlight highlights Democrats’ dual strategies

Freshman lawmakers were among 17 ‘rising stars’ featured in keynote address

Texas Democratic Rep. Colin Allred will be part of Tuesday's keynote address during the Democratic convention.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Texas Democratic Rep. Colin Allred will be part of Tuesday's keynote address during the Democratic convention. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 18, 2020 at 8:55pm, Updated at 9:45pm

Freshman Democratic Reps. Conor Lamb and Colin Allred were in the national spotlight Tuesday as two of 17 “rising stars” featured in the Democratic National Convention’s keynote address. And both are facing competitive races in November that represent different opportunities for their party.

In Lamb’s district in Western Pennsylvania, Democrats are looking to win back voters they lost in 2016. Allred’s district in North Texas is emblematic of changing suburbs where Democrats see new opportunities in 2020.

Lawmakers like Allred and Lamb believe former Vice President Joe Biden can help Democrats up and down the ballot do both. 

“I worked very hard for Joe Biden to become the Democratic nominee because I thought that he would have an appeal in my district and across the state of Texas,” Allred told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday, ahead of his appearance. “And that is certainly bearing out.”

Allred and Lamb were interspersed between other elected leaders giving Tuesday’s keynote address, their cameras slightly shaking as they recorded themselves on their phones. Lamb stressed Biden’s work rebuilding the economy, while Allred highlighted Biden’s pledge to “protect and expand” the 2010 health care law.

Both Lamb and Allred hit the campaign trail for Biden during the presidential primaries, even as other candidates in battleground districts avoided the crowded field. Many of those vulnerable members also are steering clear of the convention this week to avoid tying themselves to the national party, although some are participating in “virtual watch parties” organized by the Biden campaign. 

Allred and Lamb’s districts should be top pickup opportunities for Republicans too, but they could be places where President Donald Trump’s waning popularity amid the pandemic is a burden for GOP challengers.

Reversing 2016 losses

Pennsylvania Democratic consultant Mike Mikus said Lamb’s appearance at the convention shows that Biden and Lamb can win the state’s 17th district even though Trump would have won it by 2 points four years ago.

Mikus said Trump’s wide margins, particularly in conservative areas of Western Pennsylvania, were due to voters who disliked Hillary Clinton. He thinks Biden, who has built a reputation as a staunch supporter of unions, can win those voters back.

“Say what you want about [Biden], he has always come across as genuine and somebody who has empathy for people who are struggling,” Mikus said. “And there’s enough of those people to make a difference here in Western Pennsylvania.” 

Both Trump and Biden have made winning Pennsylvania central to their campaigns. Trump, who won the state’s 20 electoral votes by less than 1 point, will be there on Thursday, speaking at a building products company in Old Forge. Biden is a familiar face in the Keystone State, where he has roots in Scranton, and he launched his campaign at a rally in Philadelphia.

“You’re the key to who’s going to be the next president of the United States of America,” Biden told the Pennsylvania delegation to the convention Tuesday, according to a pool report.

Biden campaigned for Lamb in his 2018 special election, rallying union workers. Lamb pulled off an upset in a district Trump carried by 20 points. When Pennsylvania’s congressional map was redrawn as the result of a gerrymandering case, Lamb ran for a full term in the new 17th District and defeated GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus by nearly 13 points.

Lamb’s district is more suburban than the district where he pulled off the 2018 upset, but Mikus noted there are still a sizable number of union households, including public sector workers and building trades. Union support propelled Lamb to victory in his 2018 special election, and Mikus said the congressman still enjoys that support.

“Take it from me: When you’re in the trenches, you want Joe Biden right there next to you,” Lamb, a Marine veteran, said Tuesday night.

Lamb’s Republican opponent, Army veteran Sean Parnell, disagreed, saying Monday on a press call with the Pennsylvania GOP that he has support among rank-and-file union members.

“Nobody’s political star has faded faster than Conor’s,” Parnell said.

Republicans have touted Parnell as a top recruit. He outraised Lamb in the most recent fundraising quarter, though Lamb still had more cash on hand. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Democratic.

New opportunities

While Biden is looking to win back Pennsylvania, Democrats also see new opportunities to make gains in diversifying and suburban areas in Southern and traditionally Republican states, including Arizona, Georgia and Texas.

“Donald Trump is really, really disliked in the suburban areas of Texas and in a district like 32,” said Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle, referring to Allred’s Dallas-based district. “Joe Biden is somebody who is seen as an upgrade by not just Democrats but independents and a lot of Republicans.”

Texas is central to House Democrats’ effort to grow their majority. But they’re also on defense in Texas, as Allred and Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who flipped a Houston-area district in 2018, seek reelection.

In 2018, Allred unseated GOP Rep. Pete Sessions by nearly 7 points in the district where former President George W. Bush lives. Democrats didn’t even field a challenger to Sessions in 2016, but Clinton carried the seat by 2 points.

“Texas is changing,” Allred said. “I can’t speak for every part of the country, but certainly, districts like mine are increasingly diverse. They are folks who are paying close attention to what’s happening in the news. They do not see themselves as part of the narrow group that Donald Trump is trying to appeal to and motivate through fear and other tactics, and they’re rejecting it.”

Republicans still see the potential for voters in the wealthy and well-educated Dallas suburbs to come home to the GOP, citing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott carrying the district by 5 points in 2018. But campaign operatives in both parties acknowledged that district voters are likely to back Biden in November.

That could be a problem for Allred’s opponent, Genevieve Collins, whom Republicans also point to as a strong candidate and part of the party's effort to bolster the number of GOP women in the House. Collins believes Allred’s appearance at Tuesday’s convention is a sign he’s in trouble.

“To me, that just shows that the party is nervous about where he stands, that they want to give him more of a spotlight because this district is vulnerable,” she said Monday on a press call with the Republican National Committee. Inside Elections rates the race Leans Democratic.

Shortly before Tuesday night’s convention programming kicked off, Collins noted in a statement that Allred was speaking on the same night as liberal Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Collins said Allred “should use his platform tonight to make clear where he stands on AOC’s stance on Israel, her $93 trillion Green New Deal, and raising taxes up to 70% on hardworking Americans.”

Instead, Allred said he planned to keep the focus on Biden.

“The message that we are going to deliver in this keynote is about where we go from here, about trying to represent a diverse array … of voices, about what we see and how we think Joe Biden is better for the country,” he said.