This Butler County Democrat lost a House election. But does his race hold a lesson for red district underdogs?

Special election candidates Sam Doctor and Marci Mustello. (Courtesy campaign Facebook pages)
Special election candidates Sam Doctor and Marci Mustello. (Courtesy campaign Facebook pages)

Finishing 15 points behind your opponent isn’t often a cause for celebration.

But Democrat Sam Doctor’s double-digit loss in a special election for a Butler County state House seat could yield lessons for other red district underdogs. 

The 28-year-old ironworker performed better among voters in the district than Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey did during their reelection campaigns. Doctor’s performance against Republican Rep.-elect Marci Mustello was roughly three-and-a-half percent better than a typical Democratic candidate.

Doctor ran on union rights and anti-corruption measures, while taking a socially conservative tact on issues like guns. 

That helped him engage with all the districts voters, he said. 

“It’s not incumbent on a candidate like me to get elected and fight the culture wars in Butler, Pennsylvania,” Doctor told the Capital-Star. “Not just because this constituency doesn’t want that — it doesn’t benefit them.”

At a time when most door-knocking focuses on turnout among a candidate’s own party, Doctor said his campaign chose to send canvassers out with lists of all likely voters, not just Democrats.

Unofficial vote tallies seem to indicate that work paid off. Mustello won 5,952 votes, while 6,317 Republicans turned out for the election. Just under 29 percent of the district’s registered voters went to the polls, 7 points more compared to turnout in the county as a whole.

Doctor ran as an independent for the seat against an incumbent in November 2018 and lost by 50 percentage points.

Doctor said he heard pushback from local Democrats on some of his positions. But he felt like his stances — especially his strong, pro-labor ideals — helped him engage genuinely with a lot of voters who might have lost touch with the Democratic party.

“Sometimes it feels like the Democratic party needs to take the idea of the big tent from the Republicans and seriously reevaluate what they are doing,” Doctor said.

While ideological purity tests may be popular online, local parties in red-tinged places have been avoiding them, according to Lara Putnam, chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s history department. She’s been studying grassroots political organizing in Western Pennsylvania since the 2016 election.

“Grassroots people are super pragmatic about politics, in part, because they’ve done so much” door-knocking and persuading among strangers and friends, Putnam said. 

When the party finds strong, genuine candidates that fit their district, Putnam said, they can bring together the winning combination of union Democrats and well-educated suburban women that drove the election of Democratic U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and two state senators in the west.

Even if Doctor has some “socially idiosyncratic” views compared to other members of the party, Putnam said that presenting to voters a real-life, nuanced Democrat — and not a caricature painted by conservative media — was a win for the party’s chances in the future.

The ideological differences between progressive and conservative Democrats were thrown into sharp relief this month, when some intraparty tensions surfaced among House lawmakers over an abortion vote.

Twelve Democratic lawmakers voted in favor of a bill to ban abortion in cases of an in-utero Down syndrome diagnosis.

The vote was seen as a win for the party’s abortion-rights wing after years of robust Democratic support for abortion restrictions.

Still, at least one conservative Democrat pushed back against another member of his party who seemingly took a shot at one anti-abortion colleague. 

Earlier this spring, state Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills made clear she didn’t view the state committee as an ideological traffic cop policing candidates.

“My goal as party chair is to not take the values of one constituency to another constituency, but to introduce them to each other, to blend, to find common ground. I think that we did that with Conor Lamb,” Patton Mills said at an April 9 panel in Lancaster with GOP Chair Val DiGiorgio.

“All of the voices within the Democratic party are of extreme value to understand what our role is as Democrats,” she added.

Lamb’s performance has fueled talk of a big tent, expanding suburbs, and charismatic candidates that benefit Democrats. But Chris Nicholas, a veteran GOP operative from Harrisburg, isn’t buying that Doctor’s performance was anything more than a 1,500 vote loss.

“Democrats have made some legitimate gains in Western Pennsylvania, but I’m just not seeing that this is one of them,” Nicholas said. “Losing by [15] points in a special [election] usually just means things are over. I think they are stretching it.”

County races in November will be a better indicator of any actual changes in Butler County, he added.

As for Doctor, he’s heading back to school and doesn’t plan to jump back into another campaign — at least immediately. The redrawing of state legislative maps after the 2020 census could help him decide what to do next.

But Doctor said he “really, really” doubts he can resist another run.

Capital-Star associate editor Sarah Anne Hughes contributed reporting.

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