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Don’t Ignore Pennsylvania’s 3rd District

Freshman Democrat Blue Dog Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper is vulnerable -- and has only herself to blame.

By 5.25.10

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"Today Is the Beginning," beamed the subject head in my email box the morning after last Tuesday's election. It was a rally cry from the office of Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA), a freshman Congresswoman representing Pennsylvania's 3rd district, a large area traversing the northwest corner of the state, from Erie to Mercer County.

"Dear Paul," began the mass email. "Thank you for your overwhelming vote of support. I am both humbled and honored to represent you and I look forward to a spirited general election campaign."

It was an odd message to send to a committed non-supporter, a conservative with no intention to vote for the Congresswoman. Undeterred, the email continued, wasting no time responding to the verdict from the previous day's Republican primary, won by a local businessman named Mike Kelly:

The Republican primary resulted in a late night win by Mike Kelly, a car dealer who spent more than $300,000 of his own money to win the race. The Republican primary turned negative early and was full of attack ads and never focused on the important issues facing this region and country. It is my hope that we can engage in a civil and healthy debate, but I do not hold out hope based on how the Republican primary was run…. This race is about all of you, about creating good, family sustaining jobs, about protecting "Main Street" from the greed of Wall Street.

It was the tried-and-true class-warfare card, lifted from page one, paragraph one of the Democratic Party playbook. The deadly sin of envy works handsomely in this blue-collar, union-ridden Democratic region -- a variant of the "Murthanomics" insightfully delineated in the Spectator by Robert Stacy McCain in his analysis of Democrat Mark Critz's victory over Republican Tim Burns not far down the road in Pennsylvania's 12th district.

Of course, it was the Burns-Critz race to replace the deceased John Murtha that captured the nation's attention. Murtha held the seat since practically the Civil War. No matter what his transgressions, the Johnstown faithful, in repeated acts of self-mutilation, blindly re-elected the Congressman, even as he denounced them as "racists" and "rednecks," disparaged his last Republican challenger as a "God-damned carpetbagger," and accused heroic U.S. Marines of being "cold blooded killers." No big deal: Fat on government pork, Murtha's recipients, like dogs crawling back to their vomit -- or, perhaps, pigs to the trough -- yet again yanked the lever for the Congressman.

Of course, also capturing the nation's attention was Pennsylvania's Senate race, where Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter lost to an even bigger liberal named Joe Sestak. Conservatives were always troubled by Specter's position on social issues like abortion. Well, Joe Sestak makes Arlen Specter look like Mother Teresa on the abortion issue. The analogy is a good one, as Sestak is not only horrible on matters of life, but is Catholic to boot -- which brings me back to the Dahlkemper-Kelly race in Pennsylvania's 3rd district.

Most interesting about Dahlkemper-Kelly is that it pits a pro-life Catholic Democrat (Dahlkemper) against a pro-life Catholic Republican (Kelly). In fact, such was the scenario two years ago, when Dahlkemper defeated six-term pro-life Catholic Republican Phil English. Dahlkemper, a neophyte, stood nowhere near English in policy knowledge. Yet, the DNC was confident that Dahlkemper's social conservatism -- her pro-life stance being the capstone -- could play a decisive role in drawing traditional/Reagan Democrats away from English. The DNC was right. It worked.

What has happened since, however, doesn't bode well for Dahlkemper's prospects. She complains about Mike Kelly spending $300,000 of his own money on his campaign, but that pales to her spending $800 billion of other people's money on the Obama-Pelosi-Reid "stimulus" package. With the paint barely dry on her office door in Washington, the Congresswoman displayed a flash of fiscal insanity that didn't please the folks back home.

Yet, she was still pro-life. Or was she? That brings me to political sin #2.

Dahlkemper is indeed pro-life. I know people who know her. I've heard her personal testimony about the choice she made as a young woman that has kept her on a pro-life path her entire life. She remained on that road as the crucial vote on "Obama-care" approached the final Sunday in Lent. Dahlkemper was one of the "Blue Dog" holdouts among the Bart Stupak Democrats. Alas, in the end, she, too, caved. Hers is among the hoodwinked faces of duped Democrats standing aside their beloved leader, President Obama, as he signed a last-minute, midnight executive order to (allegedly) ban taxpayer funding of abortion -- a ban, incidentally, that the bishops who run Dahlkemper's Church insist will be ineffectual.

This was a fateful move by Dahlkemper, one that infuriated pro-lifers in her district. When I left Mass the Sunday before the primary, I saw pro-life voter-guides tucked under the windshield wipers of the cars in the lot. The guides listed Dahlkemper as "pro-abortion."

The ultimate sign of discontent with the Congresswoman was the floodgate of Republicans licking their chops to challenge her. Five serious Republican challengers stepped up, almost stampeding one another for the honor. All were good candidates, genuinely conservative, from economics to social policy -- and, of course, all solidly pro-life. Not one would have voted for Obamacare or the "stimulus."

Finally, the Republican who emerged on top is 62-year-old Mike Kelly. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in nearby Butler, Pennsylvania, Kelly was a high-school football standout who earned an academic/athletic scholarship to Notre Dame, where he was a starter his freshman year, until a devastating knee injury cut his career short. He went back home and eventually took over his father's car dealership. He's a real conservative, running under a mantra of "Never Raise Taxes" and eliminating out-of-control spending. He's a winnable candidate.

This is one of those seats Republicans need to take back the House. If Mike Kelly defeats Kathy Dahlkemper, it will be a good night for the GOP this November. If he loses, it could be a long night. This is a race Republicans should be able to win.

The Dahlkemper seat is not getting much attention from the national media. That's a mistake. Don't ignore Pennsylvania's 3rd district.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.