WAYNESBURG, Pa. — A leading national labor union official hailed Conor Lamb as a "God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning Democrat" during a rally in the final days before the first congressional election of 2018.
Lamb, the Democratic candidate for Tuesday's special election in western Pennsylvania, delivered a short five-minute speech during the event to pledge his "non-negotiable" support for labor unions, but the main event was Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America and a member of the AFL-CIO's executive council.
Roberts, who prefaced his speech by warning he is often mistaken as a preacher, spoke four times as long as the candidate and assured local UMWA members that Lamb was "one of us."
"We're God-fearing folks down in these coal fields," Roberts said in a fiery speech. "I believe in God. I believe in the Bible. And so do you. And we don't apologize to anybody for that."
"People ask me what kind of man Conor is, and we don't know each other personally, but let me tell you, I know what he's about," he said. "He's a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending Democrat."
Lamb's chances to win an election in a district President Donald Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016 hinge on his ability to carry coal workers and other members of the industrial class who fueled the president's success in the Midwest.
The district's union members remain supportive of Trump, who was here on Saturday night to support Lamb's Republican opponent Rick Saccone, but Lamb is making strides in winning them over anyway. As part of this effort, he came out in support of Trump's announced tariffs last week, splitting with nearly his entire party's establishment.
But industrial issues are not the only concern of these Trump voters, who also split with the Democratic Party on issues such as gun control and the importance of God, a word briefly removed from the official platform in 2012.
Lamb's campaign has focused on portraying him as a Second Amendment supporter, featuring images of him shooting a rifle down a range in its opening ad, and has maintained vocal support for gun rights even as many in his party want gun control to be a top issue for elections later this year.
Nonetheless, there are still concerns among voters.
Bill Kortz, a Democratic state legislator who also spoke at the Sunday event, acknowledged the concerns over the Second Amendment and used his speech to assure the crowd that Lamb "loves guns."
Kortz said when his "steel worker friends" have contacted him to say they were "concerned" about Lamb's support for gun rights, he responds by explaining that Lamb is a Marine so he "loves guns."
"Come on man, he's a Marine," Kortz said. "Marines love guns. This man is good for the Second Amendment, and anybody who tells you he isn't, they're full of crap."
The difficulty of supporting gun rights was immediately apparent during the event, with one voter visibly wincing when the issue was brought up.
"Isn’t it just sick to say somebody loves guns?" said Barbara Barnes of Canonsburg, who wore a Lamb campaign button on her hat.
Barnes complained that men have become "diminished in their masculinity" because "nobody works that hard anymore."
"They got to feel manly about something, so they shoot their guns."
She called the discussion of Lamb's supposed "love" for guns "a little sensational," but said it wouldn't stop her from voting for him.
"I'm still gonna vote for him," Barnes said. "The other guy [Republican Rick Saccone] is a lunatic. If either of them is gonna have a gun, I'd rather it be Conor, the other guy would shoot himself in the foot."
She excused Lamb's gun talk by pointing out that UMWA's official color is camouflage, saying he couldn't win supporting gun control.
Questions have also been raised about whether Lamb's early assurances to voters that because of his Catholic upbringing, he wasn't aligned with the Democratic Party on the issue of abortion.
Lamb stated early on in his campaign his belief that "life begins at conception," but when pressed on the issue by the Weekly Standard said he would oppose legislation banning abortions after 20 weeks, which are wildly unpopular and outlawed in all but seven nations worldwide.
A district resident was published Saturday in National Review calling Lamb an abortion "extremist" and suggesting he didn't have the spine to stand up to the Democratic Party on abortion, which is becoming a non-negotiable issue for party leaders.
Lamb's ability to maneuver around these issues will play a crucial role not only in his ability to win on Tuesday, but also when he runs again later this year in November, which he says will happen no matter what happens this week.
Lamb made no mention of either issue during his brief remarks at the event.