Conor Lamb ad sparks backlash for wrongly calling Fetterman a socialist

Julia Terruso
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — A super PAC backing U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb’s Democratic campaign for Senate in Pennsylvania made its first real foray into the race this week — and it didn’t go well.

The group, Penn Progress, launched an attack ad that wrongly called Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic front-runner, a “self-described democratic socialist,” drawing ire from national Democrats and rebukes from fact-checkers. Within a day of the ad airing, PolitiFact and Factcheck.org called it false, a Philadelphia TV station took it off the air, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called on Lamb to disavow it.

Perhaps most alarming for Lamb, the campaign arm for Senate Democrats, which was already seen as likely to stay on the sidelines in the primary, signaled it won’t get involved in a race where Lamb badly needs to change the dynamic.

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Taken together, the developments underscored how the window for Lamb, underfunded and behind in the polls, is closing fast ahead of the May 17 primary.

“The hope is that the ad sparks positive publicity … but by being sloppy in how they made the ad, Lamb’s super PAC shot itself in the foot,” said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist.

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb during the first debate in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary Sunday, April 3, 2022, at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. (Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

The 30-second spot aims to paint Fetterman — who grew up in Springettsbury Township and graduated from Central York High School — as a socialist who would be a risky candidate for Democrats in the general election.

The PAC behind it, led by veteran Democratic strategists including James Carville, is trying to raise big money to help Lamb bridge yawning deficits in fund-raising and campaign surveys. The group has put $800,000 behind airing the ad so far in the Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre, and Pittsburgh media markets, according to AdImpact, which tracks political advertising.

And the ad made a big splash — just likely not in the way the group intended.

“I saw the PAC ad that is currently running in Pennsylvania. It is wrong and it is disgusting,” Warren told Politico on Wednesday. “And if Conor Lamb wants to stand up as a Democrat, then he needs to disavow that ad today.”

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said there are no plans to get involved in the primary.

“If I have candidates that can win the general election, we’re not going to put our thumb on the scale,” he told Politico. “... Bottom line: We just have to win. And certainly that’s what we have in Pennsylvania, particularly with the top two candidates.”

Fetterman’s campaign blasted the ad, and WPVI, the ABC affiliate in Philadelphia, took it off the air.

“It’s not often that an attack ad starts airing AND gets pulled from TV for being false in the very same day, but ... this ad from Conor Lamb’s super PAC is not only demonstrably false, it’s desperate, and frankly sad,” Fetterman campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello said in a statement. ”We expect stations across the commonwealth to follow suit and pull this ad, which is full of lies.”

The ad cites an NPR article calling Fetterman a “self-described democratic socialist,” but the article was corrected to make clear Fetterman has never actually described himself that way. (At least eight other news outlets published articles describing Fetterman that way.) The ad also calls him “a silver-spoon socialist,” a quote from former Pennsylvania GOP chair Val DiGiorgio.

Erik Smith, who heads the PAC, did not comment on the backlash.

Super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations but cannot coordinate with campaigns they support, often take signals from those candidates about what messaging to use. And the ad does mirror some of Lamb’s own criticisms of Fetterman.

Throughout the race, Lamb has campaigned as the kind of moderate Democrat who can win a big, politically divided state like Pennsylvania — a profile similar to Democrats like President Joe Biden and Sen. Bob Casey. And Lamb has argued Fetterman is too progressive to win the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

At a debate Sunday, Lamb said the socialist label would “stick” to Fetterman more so than other Democrats because of his past support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and Medicare for All.

In November, Lamb tweeted: “If you want a Senator who runs as a Socialist … I’M NOT YOUR GUY. That’s not how you beat Republicans.” He later acknowledged he was referring to Fetterman.

Lamb’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The Democratic contest had been mostly cordial until last week, and the new ad upset some national Democrats wary of fracturing the party in a race both sides see as key to control of the Senate. Unlike in 2016, national Democrats haven’t anointed a favored Pennsylvania candidate.

As the race barrels into its final 40 days, things have shifted into a higher gear, with Lamb and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta looking for ways to catch Fetterman. The socialist attack comes on the heels of Lamb and Kenyatta teaming up on Fetterman for skipping the first debate in the race on Sunday. They both also criticized the front-runner over a 2013 incident that has loomed over his campaign, in which Fetterman pulled a shotgun on a Black jogger whom he had wrongly suspected of a shooting.

It remains to be seen if the more pointed attacks will change the trajectory of the race. Kenyatta has said that, in the case of the jogger incident, it’s about vetting a potential nominee ahead of a general election where he could face sharper criticism on the topic.

“We can either talk about this now in April or we can talk about it in November, but we’re gonna have to talk about it,” Kenyatta told the Liberty City LGBTQ Democratic Club on Tuesday. “I don’t know how we can as a Democratic Party and in good conscience ignore something that we would never ignore if it was a Republican nominee.”