The bellwether house race for 2020 is in western Pennsylvania
MT. LEBANON, Pennsylvania -- Army combat veteran Sean Parnell kicked off his race as a Republican running for the U.S. House here at Pamela's Diner. It's within a stone's throw of the district office of Rep. Conor Lamb, the Democrat he's challenging for the 17th Congressional District seat in 2020.
"My plan for today is just to tell the voters who I am, give them a sense of what I stand for and just listen to them and figure out what they feel is important," said Parnell before he headed off to two other diners in the district in Beaver and Butler counties in the western and northern suburbs of Pittsburgh.
The district is made up of neatly trimmed upper-middle-class, left-leaning Allegheny County suburbs such as Mt. Lebanon, working-class Beaver County communities packed with labor families and fiscal conservatives and enough rural and exurban Butler County voters to make the whole district a smidge Republican-leaning.
Parnell spent his time talking mostly with customers, but before he left, he took a beeline to the kitchen to talk to the cooks and servers. "I worked at Smartie Arties as a busboy, then as a cook from the time I was 15 until I was 21," he said. "I know how hard that job is, and I just want to thank them."
Parnell was born in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood and went to Greensburg Central Catholic High School in Westmoreland County. While attending Clarion University, he watched events unfold on 9/11 and felt a call to duty to join the Army. His service began in Afghanistan in 2006, commanding a platoon called "the Outlaws," who were stationed near the Pakistani border.
The experience and his bravery there earned him two Bronze Stars -- one for valor -- and the Purple Heart, as well as a New York Times bestseller, "Outlaw Platoon," which captures in vivid detail his platoon's grueling 16 months spent engaging in endless firefights in the mountains of Paktika province to upend the Haqqani network.
Lamb, the scion of a western Pennsylvania Democratic dynasty, is a former federal prosecutor and Marine Corps officer. He narrowly won his first race, beating Republican Rick Saccone for a seat in the 18th Congressional District in a special election in the spring of 2018.
Lamb then chose to run in the 17th Congressional District after the controversial move by the state's majority-Democrat Supreme Court, which redrew all of the congressional lines in the middle of last year after it determined the seats were politically drawn to favor Republicans -- only to turn around and redraw them to favor Democrats.
The next race pitted two incumbents against each other: Lamb and Republican Keith Rothfus. Rothfus lost the seat to Lamb last November by a whopping 12 percentage points.
Before Parnell's surprise jump-in, Lamb was thought to have an easy glide to the finish line next year. No one expected House Republicans to be able to recruit a quality candidate to run in any of the swing districts the GOP lost last year that placed them in the wilderness, let alone one in western Pennsylvania.