Trump Won Pennsylvania. Democrats Want the State (and His Voters) Back.

Representative Conor Lamb, Democrat of Pennsylvania, greeted people at a parade in Bairdford this month.
Credit...Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

CONWAY, Pa. — The rules are workable enough in the right hands, in the right corner of a right-leaning region of a state like this one.

Avoid the jacket-and-tie look, so voters — wary enough of Democrats — do not think they are looking at a Jehovah’s Witness. “That happened,” recalled Representative Conor Lamb, now in a polo shirt.

Pivot to safe subjects. After a local here loudly mocked the idea of “Russian collusion” with President Trump to a peer, Mr. Lamb, 34, moved in to introduce himself, telling the man (who said he was Russian) about falling in love with Russian cuisine when he was in the Marines.

And if all else fails — and it will, often — there is always prayer.

“I was reading a little Isaiah this morning,” Mr. Lamb said at a town festival recently, approaching Paul Strano, 69, whose hat read, “F.B.I.: Firm Believer In Jesus.” The two bowed their heads.

“A man of faith, backing the party of abortion, homosexual promotion,” Mr. Strano, a Trump supporter, said afterward. “But the man sold himself.” Mr. Lamb had his vote.

In his 2016 victory, Mr. Trump swiped several states that Democrats had assumed were theirs: Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida. But perhaps no outcome matched the psychic toll of losing Pennsylvania, where the past Democratic coalition of city-dwelling liberals, racial minorities and white working-class voters in union towns had long defined the party’s identity as a big-tent enterprise.

Two years later, a return to power — winning the House in November, winning the presidency in 2020 — will hinge in large measure on how effectively Democrats can connect with voters who migrated to Mr. Trump (or who stayed home altogether, disillusioned by a Democratic Party many of them once supported). The challenge is real: Unemployment in the state is below 5 percent, and Mr. Trump’s approval rating, while underwater over all in Pennsylvania, remains high among the Republicans who populate districts like Mr. Lamb’s. But in candidates like him and others across the state, national Democratic officials believe they have found a model, with a curious signature feature: Democrats in no rush to remind certain audiences that they are Democrats.

Best known for his special election victory in March in a district that the president carried by nearly 20 points, Mr. Lamb has sought to reach both college-educated suburbanites dismayed at Mr. Trump’s excesses and union workers who defected to Republicans in 2016, when the president won the state by less than a percentage point.

The balance is delicate. Mr. Lamb speaks of labor rights and economic fairness, in the Democratic tradition, but stakes out more conservative ground on social issues like guns. He begs off questions about national politics, but makes clear that he wants to see Nancy Pelosi replaced as the leader of House Democrats. He observes that “heroin kills both Democrats and Republicans,” the only mention of the D-word on his campaign website’s home page.

He claims to have few strong feelings about Mr. Trump’s job performance.

“I’m not real concerned about it,” Mr. Lamb said in an interview. (After the chat was over, he wanted another pass at the topic. “It’s not that I’m not concerned about job performance,” he clarified. “It’s that I don’t think it’s my role to be a speculator or analyst.”)

Other Democrats in Trump-supporting areas have tested their own modulated message. In northeastern Pennsylvania, Representative Matt Cartwright, whose district Mr. Trump won by 10 points, is quick to recall Democratic triumphs of generations past, like Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Social Security into law. Like Mr. Lamb, he emphasizes the need to secure affordable health coverage and tend to moldering roads and bridges. Unlike Mr. Lamb, he won his office by initially challenging a conservative incumbent Democrat from the left in a 2012 primary, declaring himself a member of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

But direct criticisms of the president have been relatively sparse. Though Mr. Cartwright, 57, said in an interview that he wished Mr. Trump would “act more presidential,” he reached for empathy when explaining his own constituents’ choices in 2016.

“They voted for the change candidate, and you do that when you are hurting,” he said. “And I try to remind them that it is the Democratic Party that cares about the people who are hurting more than any other party. And I say to myself, I have to redouble my own efforts because these are my people who are hurting.”

Across the state, candidates have been similarly introspective. Perpetually a bellwether — with bipartisan representation in the United States Senate currently and seesawing control of the governorship for decades — Pennsylvania has assumed an especially prominent place in the present political moment. Not only are Gov. Tom Wolf and Senator Bob Casey, both Democrats, fighting to keep their seats this November, but congressional districts have been rendered more competitive under a redrawn map, making the state central to any Democratic path back to a House majority in Washington.

Mr. Wolf, a businessman from south central Pennsylvania, will face Scott Wagner, who owns a waste-hauling company and served in the State Senate. Mr. Casey — long an understated senator, now emitting more fire in the Trump age — is running against Representative Lou Barletta, an immigration hard-liner and early Trump supporter. Polls have shown both Democrats with double-digit leads, buoyed in part by deep antipathy toward Mr. Trump in urban areas — enough to make Mr. Casey entirely comfortable opposing Mr. Trump’s recent Supreme Court pick before his identity (Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh) was even revealed.

And under the redrawn map, several Democratic women are running in congressional districts that are either leaning in their favor or are solidly blue, including Madeleine Dean, Chrissy Houlahan and Mary Gay Scanlon in suburban Philadelphia, and Susan Wild in the Lehigh Valley. Democrats see at least a half-dozen potential pickup opportunities in the state this fall, when they will need to flip 23 seats nationwide to take back the House.

This jumbling of the boundary lines has also coincided with a wider upheaval in the state — demographically, economically, socially. Democrats have clustered ever more tightly in major cities. Pittsburgh, so synonymous with steel that the word lives in the name of its football team, has transformed into a haven of “eds and meds,” with greener medical complexes, a Google campus and a test track for autonomous cars.

A surge of immigrants has spawned resurgence and resentment in equal measure in some long-flagging labor towns, where blue-collar white voters have often felt left behind, their grievances reflected back in the racially-hued message and zero-sum populism of Mr. Trump.

“Two things can be true at the same time: There is xenophobia and nationalism and racist undertones,” said John Fetterman, the longtime mayor of Braddock, outside Pittsburgh, and the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. “But there’s also people that are reachable.”

Often, success is as much a matter of emphasis as policy. Rick Bloomingdale, the president of the Pennsylvania A.F.L.-C.I.O., said that despite a “great economic plan” from Hillary Clinton in 2016, the piece of her platform that broke through most was “how awful Trump was.”

“People don’t want to hear you tell them how bad Trump is,” Mr. Bloomingdale said. “They either know or they don’t care.”

Though Democrats hope to erase the memory of Mrs. Clinton’s race statewide, regions like Mr. Lamb’s and Mr. Cartwright’s have been a particular focus of the political reclamation project. The party once ruled many of the labor strongholds of the southwest, where the river’s edge is pocked with brownfields and shuttered taverns and roadside sunflowers that tilt backward, like a boxer dodging a punch, when a truck cuts a curve too sharply.

And northeastern Pennsylvania has long carried particular significance for Democrats as a point of electoral pride in an increasingly cosmopolitan party. Mrs. Clinton’s father came from there, as she liked to tell her Pennsylvania crowds. She learned to shoot a gun, she said, at her family’s cottage on nearby Lake Winola. Mr. Casey is another Scranton man, like his father — a two-term Democratic governor — before him. So is former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., from whom Mr. Lamb said he learned a crucial lesson about grip-and-grin hustle at parades.

“I watched him do it once,” Mr. Lamb said. “He had to change his shirt afterward. That was the metric of success.”

So perhaps nowhere was Mr. Trump’s success more striking than across the northeastern ZIP codes where Democrats had long held firm. In Luzerne County, which includes Wilkes-Barre, President Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012 by five points; Mr. Trump won it by 19. In neighboring Lackawanna County, which includes Scranton, Mr. Obama won by 27 points; Mrs. Clinton beat Mr. Trump there by only three.

Mr. Cartwright’s Republican opponent in the area is John Chrin, a former investment banker who has pumped more than $1.3 million into his campaign. Mr. Cartwright is seen as the favorite, but he is one of a small number of incumbent House Democrats nationwide whose races are viewed as competitive. A recent ad from Mr. Chrin’s campaign accuses Mr. Cartwright of supporting so-called sanctuary cities and “protecting criminals,” while also voting in lock step with Ms. Pelosi.

But the congressman has strained to avoid such typecasting as a liberal shill. Among other flourishes, he has been eager to share word of a new hobby with prospective voters: deer hunting.

“My job is to get to know people and learn about their passions,” he said in the interview.

There is another upside. “It helps me talk to Republican members of Congress, too,” Mr. Cartwright said. “It’s a nice way to say, ‘You know, I don’t hate you.’”

Some skeptical voters have commanded extra care from Mr. Cartwright and his team. Outside the bingo tent at a church bazaar in Tannersville, Mr. Cartwright encountered Duane Grady, a Trump voter who owns a home heating oil business and expressed fondness of the Republican tax cuts. He said he used to support Democrats.

“You heard it from Uncle Matt: We want you back, man,” Mr. Cartwright told him.

Soon after, a Cartwright campaign worker offered his own pitch to Mr. Grady. The congressman, he noted, does not support “open borders” or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an idea that some liberal Democrats have embraced. (Last month, both Mr. Lamb and Mr. Cartwright voted for a symbolic resolution supporting I.C.E.)

“Don’t let that far left-wing fringe, like antifa and stuff like that, make you think that they control the entire party,” the worker said. “Don’t think that we all belong to that side.”

Mr. Grady, it turned out, lived outside of Mr. Cartwright’s district, but he is the sort of voter Democrats need just the same. And he remained ambivalent. “I’d love to go back,” he said of voting Democratic. “But they got to get a whole new wave in there.”

Mr. Lamb’s campaign has likewise required a hard sell at times. At a neighborhood parade in Bairdford — where a State Senate candidate passed out Steelers schedules with his face on the top — Mr. Lamb drew a mixed reception.

“Gripping and grinning,” a man grumbled from his folding chair as Mr. Lamb passed.

A baby began to cry. “I get that reaction from a lot of people,” Mr. Lamb said.

But Mr. Lamb, prone to sports metaphors and coaching wisdom, does not discourage easily. He recalled a quote attributed to Bill Russell, the basketball legend: “Hustle is a talent.” And often, voters seemed to remember him from the ubiquitous advertisements during his special election. This has made him at least as recognizable as his Republican opponent, Keith Rothfus, a three-term incumbent whose new district lines are far less favorable. (A recent poll showed Mr. Lamb with a solid lead.)

Some fellow Democratic candidates, eager to emulate Mr. Lamb’s performance in conservative-leaning districts, have reached out in recent months for advice. There is little to give, Mr. Lamb suggested.

“There really is no playbook or master plan or strategy,” he said.

But Mr. Lamb has pursued a hobby of his own, as needed.

When two seniors began dancing beside an inflatable bounce-house at the festival in Conway, Mr. Lamb joined them — all limbs and peer pressure — twisting and kicking to the beat.

“Are you allowed to just do whatever you want with your hands?” he asked, mid-shuffle.

Yes, he was told. There was no playbook or master plan or strategy.

Matt Flegenheimer reported from Conway, Pa., and Thomas Kaplan from Tannersville, Pa.

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