By Ray O’Hanlon
In a year when legions of voters are champing at the bit and counting down the days to November, the residents of Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district have a leg up on their compatriots.
They get to vote for a new member of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, March 13.
And in one respect they face a choice rooted in America’s immigration heritage: Gaelic or Garlic?
The Garlic side of this political battle comes in the shape of Republican candidate Rick Saccone.
The Gaelic corner of this particular political ring is occupied by Democrat Conor Lamb.
And it is thus occupied as a result of another Irish American congressman, the GOP’s Tim Murphy, having been forced to relinquish his house seat last October after it emerged that he had urged a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to have an abortion.
The 18th was one of those districts where the incumbent didn’t have to worry too much about a rival from the other party.
That’s all changed and the district is now seen as being competitive by the Democrats, and a must-hold by Republicans.
This is despite the fact that President Trump carried the district by almost twenty points in 2016.
The bulk of the 18th is comprised of suburban Pittsburgh and more outlying communities such as Clairton, a steel town that was the setting for the movie “The Deer Hunter.”
Despite there being more registered Democrats in the district it would hardly be described as “blue.” The votes have been mostly going to Republicans in recent years.
That means Democrat Lamb presenting himself as more “blue dog” than clear blue.
His party, 23 seats behind the GOP in the House of Representatives, will take any shade.
Hence the supportive presence on the campaign trail of some leading Democrats in recent weeks, all of them Irish American as it happens.
Lamb has been lauded from platforms and stages by the likes of former vice president Joe Biden, Congressman Joe Kennedy III, and Martin O’Malley, the ubiquitous former governor of Maryland.
Mr. Saccone, a Pennsylvania State Representative, has had stump support from President Trump.
Lamb’s family is deeply rooted in local politics, though this is his first run for political office.
He is a former Marine and Assistant U.S. Attorney. His GOP rival is also a military veteran so the two cancel each other out on that level.
Lamb, at 33, is a lot younger that Saccone, a 60-year-old unabashed strong conservative who has described himself as “Trump before Trump.”
Lamb’s Irish roots mostly go back to counties Galway and Mayo. He captained the Pittsburgh Celtics Gaelic Football Club from 2006 to 2008.
He has made several visits to Ireland over the past fifteen years, including a University of Pennsylvania rugby team tour.
Lamb has a limited repertoire of Irish songs, guitar and vocal, according to his uncle, Jim Lamb, President of the Irish Institute of Pittsburgh and Honorary Irish Consul in the city.
Uncle Jim will be hoping for an unlimited repertoire when it comes to last minute vote-attracting polemics.
In answer to the question as to what kind of Democrat his nephew is, what shade of Democratic blue he is, Jim Lamb is emphatic.
“There is no label for Conor,” he says.
“Lamb is hard to pin down on the issues they are throwing at him,” the Washington Post reported, as if in confirmation of the older Lamb’s assertion.
This may well be the key pointer as to why the Republican Party has been pouring money into the campaign from outside the district, even as Lamb continues to run neck and neck with his opponent in the polls.
It is quite simply very difficult to make labels stick to the young Irish American. As a result, a visitor from another planet watching Saccone TV commercials might be forgiven for thinking that the Republican candidate’s opponent was a woman named Nancy Pelosi.
Conor Lamb’s brother, Coleman, meanwhile, is running the communications side of the campaign while on leave from his primary job - that of being communications director for Congresswoman Kathleen Rice from Long Island.
The 18th district battle is but the first skirmish in a year when midterm elections will mean voting for the full House of Representatives in November.
Whoever wins on Tuesday will, therefore, have to stand again before the voters eight months from now, though likely in a reconfigured district as a result of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on districting in the Keystone State.
“For Democrats, even a narrow loss would be a moral victory, leaving Lamb with a developed brand, poised to win a new race in November,” the Guardian reported.
“In order to win, Democrats have to build a fragile coalition of their own energized base, suburban Republicans disaffected with Trump and blue-collar voters disaffected with everything,” the report said.
Should he win, given his family and background, a Congressman Lamb would be expected to quickly pin one label to his chest: that of an Irish American legislator with an active interest in issues of Irish American concern.