Key Pennsylvania House Race Features Two Catholic Candidates with Opposing National Visions

Democratic incumbent Conor Lamb is running against Republican challenger Sean Parnell in a bellwether contest in a battleground swing state.

Rep. Conor Lamb (left) alongside challenger Sean Parnell.
Rep. Conor Lamb (left) alongside challenger Sean Parnell. (photo: Official photo / Wikimedia Commons)

The race in Pennsylvania’s 17th district between two Catholic candidates, Democrat Rep. Conor Lamb and Republican challenger Sean Parnell, has been highlighted as a race with national implications in the swing state that President Donald Trump won narrowly in 2016. 

And while both candidates are Catholic, they have very different approaches to key issues like health care, abortion, guns and immigration. The race has also centered on potential bans on fracking, a process of drilling to extract oil and natural gas, which is a major industry in Pennsylvania.

Lamb, 36, narrowly turned Pennsylvania’s 18th District blue in a March 2018 special election victory against Republican challenger Rick Saccone to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican. He then went on to defeat Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus in Pennsylvania’s newly drawn 17th District in November 2018. 

Now, however, Lamb, an attorney and former Marine, is facing a formidable challenge from Republican Sean Parnell, 41, an author and Army combat veteran with a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars from his time in Afghanistan. 



Fracking and the 30,000 jobs associated with it in western Pennsylvania are a huge issue for voters. As journalist Salena Zito wrote last year, “Democratic presidential candidates cannot win Pennsylvania without western Pennsylvanian support, and they cannot win the presidency without Pennsylvania.” Many consider the Lamb, Parnell match-up a bellwether race for the U.S. presidential outcome and the discussion of fracking has become a national issue.

The issue was raised in the last presidential debate when President Trump referenced Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s past calls to ban fracking as part of a transition to green energy. Biden has since clarified that he was calling only for a ban on “new fracking” on “federal lands.” In that debate, Biden claimed that he has ruled out “banning fracking because the answer we need, we need other industries to transition, to get to ultimately a complete zero emissions by 2025. What I will do with fracking over time is make sure that we can capture the emissions from the fracking, capture the emissions from gas.” 

Lamb is a member of Biden’s climate task force. He spoke out against legislation to ban fracking proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who are also members of Biden’s climate task force. Lamb wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in February that “if this bill were enacted — and survived likely court challenges — it would eliminate thousands of jobs in my state and likely millions across the country. It would also remove from our energy grid the source of power that has been most responsible for reducing carbon emissions in our country.”

“In western Pennsylvania,” he added, “people feel betrayed when they hear that there are any Democrats who support the elimination of jobs in our communities — good, middle-class, union jobs — and whose policies could easily lead to an increase in carbon emissions.”

But Parnell has questioned the legitimacy of Lamb’s stated support for fracking and, given Lamb’s endorsement of Biden, has tied him to Biden’s admission in a February primary debate that he was willing to “displace thousands maybe hundreds of thousands of blue collar workers in the interest of transitioning to that greener economy.” 

Parnell also highlighted that Lamb voted with Democrats to block Trump’s withdrawal from the Obama-era Paris Climate Accords. In his statement announcing the U.S. withdrawal, Trump pointed out that the Paris agreement would have harmed the coal industry in Pennsylvania and other states.


The Economy

This tension between jobs and green energy policy is just one aspect of the race with national implications. Lamb and Parnell both appeared at their party’s conventions this year and delivered messages to voters about their respective presidential nominees’ visions for the future with a focus on their impact on the economy — an issue that is the No. 1 concern for voters across the country. 

Lamb said that “while working families are struggling,” Trump is “looking out for the people who are already doing just fine. The wealthy, the big corporations, the donors to his campaign.” He credited Biden for leading “the recovery effort that created millions of jobs, including here in Western Pennsylvania. Under his leadership, America bounced back with the longest economic expansion in history.”

Parnell described watching “with alarm as the party of my grandfather, a life-long union Democrat, turned against the very people it professed to represent”, and watching “as Joe Biden spit venom at an auto worker who dared to question Joe’s intent to dismantle the second amendment and take your guns. Where Democrats once stood for hardworking law, abiding Americans who displayed our flag with pride, this new Democrat Party considers these people uneducated racists clinging to guns and bibles.” 

He said that “President Trump has unleashed the economic might of this nation like no other president in our history. He triggered the rising tide of working families, brought us energy independence, reclaimed jobs from overseas that Democrats said would never return.” 


Abortion and Issues of Faith

Another component to the Pennsylvania race is the importance of faith to voters in western Pennsylvania where 73% of adults are Christian and 24% are Catholic, according to Pew Research Center. Lamb has invoked his Catholic faith on issues like immigration and healthcare and is a member of Catholics for Biden. 

However, some religious voters have called him out about his pro-abortion voting record. At a Catholics for Biden event in August, Lamb was heckled by pro-life protestors according to a Pittsburgh NPR News Station article titled, “Can Biden Win Back Support From Catholic Democrats in PA?” Lamb, who omitted any mention of abortion in his remarks at the event, told those gathered, “Because of you, those of you who sent a Democratic majority to Congress ... can be proud of several actual works, specific things that we have stepped forward and voted and done to try and help the most vulnerable in our society.” 

But one protester pointedly asked in reply, “Like the unborn?” 

Lamb later commented to America magazine of the hecklers, “They were saying ‘heretic,’ well, people yelled that at Jesus.”

In 2018, Lamb said that “I don’t use the term ‘pro-life’ to describe what I personally believe, because that’s a political term. It’s not one that you learn in Catholic school or anywhere else in the church.” He said that “we believe that life begins at conception,” but “as a matter of separation of church and state, I think a woman has the right to choose under the law, so I would vote against” a ban on abortion after 20 weeks.

In addition to opposing legislation that would ban abortion at 20 weeks, the point at which science suggests a preborn child can feel pain, Lamb also opposed the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act which would put protections in place for babies born alive after an abortion attempt.

Parnell said he was “horrified” by Lamb’s vote on that bill adding that “saving the lives of children after birth is not a partisan issue.” He describes himself as “pro-life,” on his website and supports “presidential candidates who will pick pro-life judges for our courts.”  


Health Care, Immigration, and Civil Unrest

While abortion has been a hot-button issue in this race, the issue of health care has been another focus. In the candidates’ September debate, Lamb saidthat millions could lose insurance if the ACA is overturned. 

“Today, you are protected by that law, but tomorrow you may not be,” he said. “I’ll keep working to keep that law in place and I’ll continue working to strengthen your Medicare and your Social Security.” Lamb also said people with pre-existing conditions could lose their healthcare. 

Parnell countered that “we should always protect people with preexisting conditions. You want to know why this is so important to me? I have a preexisting condition. I was blown up in Afghanistan, I fractured my skull, I had a traumatic brain injury, this is something that is deeply personal to me.” He said that he knows people who lost their health care or whose premiums went up because of the ACA.

Another area of stark contrast between the two candidates is immigration. Lamb has statedin the past on immigration that “the Dreamers obviously should stay,” and “the other 11½ million people, who knows how they got here, but they’re here, they’re in the shadows, that’s not really helping anybody, [so] let’s find a way to pull them out [of the shadows.]” Parnell is in favor of cracking “down on illegal immigration, by ending ‘Sanctuary Cities’ and finishing The Wall.”

The issue of racial justice and civil unrest has also been a point of contention in the race as Parnell accused Lamb of “marching with ‘defund the police’ radicals” following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota. 

“I put people in jail for more than 20 years for committing violence against each other,” said Lamb, who was formerly a federal prosecutor. “I support funding for the police — but I also support always trying to improve,” he said. “We all have a job to do to try to improve police in this country and the difference between the two of us is, I’m willing to do that job. I’m willing to work with Republicans on their ideas to get these bills actually passed and make a change.”

While Parnell said “I hope and pray that George Floyd’s family gets justice,” he accused Lamb of remaining “silent as left-wing mobs rampage across our country and injure police officers.” Lamb replied, “I’ll say it again because you didn’t hear the first time: I don’t believe anyone should commit violence.”


‘Micro-Version of the Presidential Race’

Kristen Coopie, a political analyst and director of the pre-law program at Duquesne University, told the Register that “in many ways, this race is a micro-version of the presidential race,” pointing out that Parnell’s candidacy was even announced by President Trump.

“Democrats are framing this election as a choice between those who will help the most vulnerable and needy in society, and can best provide for the common good, versus those who use their faith to inform their vote, choosing the candidate who can best protect the lives of the unborn,” she said. 

Coopie said that “many conservative voters cannot and will not vote for” the pro-abortion candidate, “so regardless of how encompassing Lamb is trying to be, the only choice [for such voters] is to vote for the conservative Republican Parnell. Parnell has also stated that he will support pro-life judicial candidates as well, and as we have seen, judicial nominations have becoming a huge issue for many voters.” 

Coopie found it “interesting to see how both Catholics can take such divergent positions on issues. In general, Lamb says that his faith shapes his goals of helping people, whether that means protecting immigrant families or ensuring the provision of health care for those who need it.”

Matthew Archbold, a columnist for the Register who resides in Pennsylvania, noted that the 17th District “has flipped between Republicans and Democrats in recent years.” He noted that “the entire state and perhaps the entire country is focused on this race in the suburbs of Pittsburgh because it is believed that this will tell us which way the state is going.”  

“Both sides have talked extensively about the importance of Catholic voters,” Archbold said. “The eyes of the political world are focused on this one suburban Pennsylvania district with two Catholic candidates running with very different visions.”