In last week’s midterms, in a nearly 15-point swing from the 2016 presidential results in what is now Pennsylvania’s 17th District, rookie U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat from Mt. Lebanon, won an easy reelection with 56 percent of the vote.
It was a rare two incumbent election, against Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus of the old 12th District, in an area narrowly won by President Donald Trump. Precinct level turnout and vote margins suggest that part of that victory came from strong support in the Jewish community, particularly in Lamb’s native South Hills.
Lamb’s margin was part of a shift toward Democrats in Pennsylvania’s suburbs; statewide, Democrats gained three seats in Congress. This shift was foreshadowed by Lamb’s special election win last year in a heavily Republican district.
Lamb, a marine veteran and former prosecutor, ran as a moderate, saying he would not support the longtime House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, for speaker. He supported Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs and he was one of only three Democrats who voted to make permanent the individual tax cuts in the Republicans’ recent tax reform.
Exit polls are not granular enough to determine Lamb’s precise support in the Jewish community, but Fox News exit polls show that Pennsylvania-wide, Jewish voters pulled the lever for Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat, by a 66 point margin. Wolf won Pennsylvania’s Jewish electorate by just half that margin four years ago.
Another imprecise metric suggests the same trend: According to county elections data, turnout surged in the precincts containing Chabad of the South Hills, the Jewish Community Center in the South Hills, Temple Emanuel and Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, compared to both the highly-watched 2017 special election and the district’s overall turnout. And all four precincts, as well as the precinct containing the Carnegie Shul, voted for Lamb at margins exceeding his district-wide lead, all over 60 percent.
Lamb saw stronger audiences for both of his “Coffee and Conversation” town hall events at the South Hills JCC than did his opponents in each election, said Rob Goodman, director of South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh, although those audiences were not exclusively Jewish.
Goodman said his organization is “not trying to push an agenda,” just to give members of the community a chance to meet their candidates.
Prior to his March special election victory in the old 18th District, Lamb encountered some skepticism over prior comments about Israel. At his first “Coffee and Conversation,” he was asked about comments he reportedly wrote on the website of the University of Pennsylvania’s Daily Pennsylvanian as a student in 2002, accusing Israel of “terrorism.”
Lamb told the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle at the time that he did not remember those comments. “Israel is our friend, one of our closest and most important allies in the world, and I will always support Israel,” said Lamb.
Rothfus, Lamb’s opponent on Nov. 6, is also a supporter of Israel.
Joshua Sayles, director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said, “Israel is a key issue, always a key issue. We’re seeking leaders who support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and Democratic state.”
Between Lamb’s two elections, the makeup of his district became more favorable to Democrats, switching from a Trump +19.6 district to a Trump +2.5 district, and it lost a fraction of the Jewish community, as Upper St. Clair remained in the 18th District, which is now dominated by Pittsburgh.
The Jewish community also changed.
“I think that unfortunately, priorities for the Jewish community have shifted dramatically in the last couple of weeks after the murder of 11 people,” said Sayles.
Goodman said he has seen people put politics aside following the massacre. “Regardless of what their feelings are, I have seen just a huge outpouring of warmth and kindness and tolerance,” he said.
Rabbi Don Rossoff of Temple Emanuel emphasized the importance of politicians not supporting or tolerating hatred: “I, for one, am very troubled when public discourse divides and demonizes, so I expect our elected officials to remember well that words matter. Words provide the air that keeps anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice and hatred alive.”
Sayles said that one question the attack has raised is gun control. “A priority of the community, I think, is to work to prevent gun violence. I think we’re still healing as a community and the policy of how to prevent gun violence — we’re not ready to discuss that, but it’s at the front of everybody’s mind.”
Rossoff agreed: “Prior to the murders at Tree of Life, most Jews, regardless of political affiliation, wanted more done to decrease gun violence in our country.”
Rick D’Loss, vice president of Congregation Ahavath Achim (the “Carnegie Shul”) and chair of the Carnegie Democratic Committee, said one of his priorities would be to push Lamb to support banning assault rifles, the type of weapon used in the Tree of Life shooting.
“Conor has said that he doesn’t support a ban on assault rifles. He does support background checks and making sure that those folks that are mentally ill don’t have weapons. Maybe at some point we can pull him along.”
Of course, many Jewish voters prioritize any number of other issues. “It was the economy, health care, the discussion of the president’s tweets” at the town halls, said Goodman.
D’Loss, for example, is a supporter of Medicare-for-all, and would like to see Lamb shift left. Lamb supports the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid.
“Ultimately, what is good for American Jews is what is good for all Americans and vice versa,” said Rossoff.
“Really the bottom line is being seen in the community and allowing yourself to be accessible and hearing what they say. I think Conor will do that,” said D’Loss. PJC