Army veteran Sean Parnell didn’t mention that he was running for Congress when he took the stage Monday night at the Republican National Convention. But his stint in the national spotlight underscored his campaign strategy: stress his military service and enthusiastically support President Donald Trump.
The Pennsylvania Republican began his nearly five- minute speech by detailing his service in Afghanistan, when his platoon came under fire, outnumbered by the Taliban.
“In our darkest hour, when our survival depended on each other, my men and I learned an important lesson: We all bleed red,” Parnell said. “Our differences did not define us. United we were unbeatable.”
Parnell’s speech comes less than a week after his opponent, Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb, a Marine veteran, was featured at the Democratic convention as part of a 17-person keynote address.
That both parties chose to spotlight the race for Pennsylvania’s 17th District in the Pittsburgh suburbs highlights the importance both Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden have put on the Keystone State in the battle for the White House. Trump carried Pennsylvania by less than 1 point in 2016. Biden, a Scranton native, launched his presidential run in Philadelphia.
“It’s really a battleground for both presidential candidates,” said GOP consultant Mike DeVanney, who is based in Pittsburgh.
In both Lamb and Parnell, DeVanney said, “you have people who are viewed potentially as the future of the party: Conor Lamb, who ran as a centrist. And then you have Sean Parnell, who has run as being part of the party that has been energized by President Trump.”
Parnell is no stranger to the national spotlight. He was a frequent guest on Fox News before deciding to run for Congress. Trump actually preempted Parnell’s own campaign announcement by saying at a Pittsburgh rally last fall that Parnell would be taking on Lamb, and has since tweeted his support for the Army veteran.
Since launching his congressional campaign, Parnell has been running as a staunch Trump ally. And that was on full display Monday night when he praised Trump’s economic record and said he had “fiercely defended the besieged First and Second Amendments.”
“With four more years, imagine what we can achieve by simply working with our president,“ Parnell said. “I believe in our president’s vision for the future.”
But it’s not clear if that strategy will work in a district that Trump would have only narrowly carried in 2016, had the current congressional map been in place. DeVanney, though, said speaking at the GOP convention presents an opportunity for Parnell to connect with the national party base, and potentially boost his fundraising.
“I think the reward outweighs the risk,” DeVanney said. “Not everybody in this district is going to be watching the convention.”
Parnell has already proved to be a strong fundraiser. He outraised Lamb in the most recent fundraising quarter, but Lamb still had a cash-on-hand advantage with $1.3 million on June 30 compared with Parnell’s $870,000.
DeVanney said both parties’ decision to highlight the 17th District race also underscores the swing nature of Western Pennsylvania. Lamb won a special election in 2018 in a district Trump had carried by 20 points, with help from unions that had supported former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy.
When Pennsylvania’s congressional map was redrawn as the result of a gerrymandering lawsuit, Lamb ran for a full term in a new district that was more suburban. Had the new map been in place in 2016, Trump would have won the 17th District by just 2 points.
Lamb defeated GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus by 13 points in the 2018 race for a full term. Democratic Sen. Bob Casey also handily carried the seat, by 17 points, in his successful race against GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, also a strong Trump ally, according to calculations from Daily Kos Elections.
The suburban nature of the 17th District has Democrats believing Trump will lose it, since he’s struggled in the suburbs throughout the country. That dynamic may also give Lamb an opening to criticize the president and tie himself to Biden.
Lamb sharply criticized Trump in his brief appearance during the keynote address, saying, “While working families are struggling, [Trump]’s looking out for the people who are already doing just fine: the wealthy, the big corporations, the donors to his campaign.”
Pennsylvania Democratic consultant Mike Mikus said in a recent interview that Lamb’s appearance at last week’s convention was a sign his campaign believes Biden will do well in the 17th District. Mikus said Parnell, on the other hand, is “running the wrong race in the wrong place.”
“He’s running as Trump’s mini-me in a district that Trump likely is going to lose by double digits,” Mikus said.
But Republicans believe the president will run much closer in the district, due to the presence of blue-collar workers and union members who have backed Trump, and whose jobs are tied to the oil and gas industry. DeVanney noted that the district is also home to “Casey Democrats,” or registered Democrats who are socially conservative and oppose gun control and abortion rights, similar to Casey’s father, the late Democratic Gov. Bob Casey Sr.
Parnell made his own pitch Monday night to disaffected Democrats, saying that when he returned from Afghanistan, “I watched with alarm as the party of my grandfather — a lifelong union Democrat — turned against the very people it professed to represent.”
Parnell later added, “If you are a traditional Democrat who has become disillusioned with how radical your party has become, then stand with us.”
Still, DeVanney said Republicans nationally and in these House races “have to close the gap in the suburbs or it’s going to be a tough election night.”