Salena Zito

BUTLER, Pa. – In a campaign office on the first floor of a Sons of Italy lodge, Republican Mike Kelly spoke confidently to a crowd of locals about his race for the U.S. Congress.

Outside, a lone Joe Sestak supporter marched up and down with a handmade sign. Generating little attention, he left before Kelly’s rally began.

If you want a perfect picture of a potential wave election, Main Street here paints it for you.

Forty-odd miles north of Pittsburgh, Butler’s majestic county courthouse is across the street from a well-kept monument to fallen Civil War soldiers.

Architecture from a bygone era anchors rows of small businesses – antique shops, a drugstore that’s still locally owned, a ballroom, a sandwich shop and two dress shops.

Way too many shuttered stores are crammed in between, however.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, a freshman Democrat, beat seven-term Republican Phil English in 2008 – but her win was not pretty.

Thanks to a herculean effort by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and English’s lack of political instinct, she squeaked by in a region that went for Republican John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama.

This district hugs the left corner of Northwestern Pennsylvania and the Rust Belt. It is equally rural and industrial, making it a classic battleground but not necessarily a bellwether of what is to come in the fall midterms.

Dahlkemper has cash and voter-registration advantages. Yet Kelly is a larger-than-life car-dealership owner and former Notre Dame offensive tackle who can easily self-fund his campaign.

That matters in a district which is a cheap-date for political campaigners: There’s no expensive media market to drive up costs.

Kelly, 62, says he never considered running for office until last year, when he learned he might lose his Cadillac franchise in the government’s takeover of General Motors.

“I had over 100 people whose livelihoods depended on me,” he said. “That one phone call hit a nerve … my family has had our business since the 1950s, and we had always made and exceeded our numbers, so I started thinking out loud about what I could do.”

He kept his Cadillac franchise – and the fire in his belly to run.

Institutional Democrats dismiss Kelly as having no chance, especially in Erie, the district’s largest city and a Democrat base.

Local Democrats don’t buy Washington’s conventional wisdom.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.