Republican Congressional candidate Lou Barletta has a secret weapon: Betty Crocker.
A team of bakers have carpet-bombed his campaign with lemon cake and peanut thumbprints. In a grand testament to the dedication of conservative women, the spread at a recent event in Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania included sheet cake, chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies, pound cake, hoagies, and beer. That's only the beginning, according to Joe Steber, the Jury Commissioner for Carbon County in Barletta’s district.
"Two years ago, he was the immigration guy," said Steber. "This time around, he's running on much more."
That "much more" amounts to nothing short of a sugar high for his campaign, which has been steamrolling through the 11th district in a mini referendum of his opponent, Democrat Paul Kanjorski, as well as Obama and the Democratic agenda. Jobs, tolls, bailouts, health care, and anything else that can be attributed to Obama are the focus of his campaign, with illegal immigration as the lynchpin. Immigrants have committed crimes that have shocked the close-knit community since Barletta was mayor of Hazleton, a city of 30,000, starting in the year 2000.
As mayor, Barletta oversaw the investigation of those immigrant crimes that stretched the city’s police budget to its limits, and led to Barletta proposing a law that has just been turned down by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The Illegal Immigration Relief Act of 2006 would require every resident in Hazelton be cleared for citizenship when they applied for housing, and would have cracked down on businesses that hired illegals. You could say that Arizona immigration law SB1070 was modeled exactly after Barletta's original bill.
Barletta "isn't done" with the immigration issue, according to communications coordinator Shawn Kelly. It’s similar to the way Barletta simply isn’t done campaigning, despite being defeated by Kanjorski twice before.
Barletta says the reason he decided to run for a third time is because of his newborn grandson; at the Nesquahoning event, he spins the predictable line that he's doing it all for him. But it's easy to see why the grandson may be political grandstanding: this year couldn't be more different than 2002 and 2008, when Barletta lost.
There are few Republican challengers that have benefited more from the 2010 "kick the bums out" mentality than Lou Barletta.
"He lies. About everything," said Danny Farole, a retired industrial plant worker from Allentown, referring to Barletta's opponent Kanjorski. The singular "he" seamlessly turned into "they," as Farole extended his exclamation to Pelosi and Obama. "They lie right to your face."
With eight universities in the northeastern Pennsylvania area, the top of the ticket usually drives turnout. This year, younger, college-age Obama supporters won't blindly pull the lever for Kanjorski, who has been in office for 26 consecutive years. There's a strong Senate candidate on the state level in Republican Pat Toomey, and Kanjorski has committed the trifecta of voting sins in the past two years: health care, stimulus packages, and bailouts.
"America did vote for hope in 2008, they did vote for change... but that's not what we got," Barletta said, at the Nesquehoning event. "We got someone who wanted to change America."
The 11th district has been called the quintessential battleground race, but "quintessential" could be called "extreme." Most Pennsylvanians are Democrats, voting for moderate liberals with pro-life records. The duel combo of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi has made it all but impossible to be a moderate, however, especially for fiscally-conscious northeastern Pennsylvanians on a fixed income.
Barletta’s inroads during the campaign have turned the race into a referendum on the current Congress, but have also challenged the Democratic staying power in an area of the country where Democrats have traditionally maintained an easy grasp.
Kanjorski has polled about even with Barletta recently, but Steber is more than a little optimistic. During Kanjorski’s monumental time span in office, he’s become just a little... overbaked.
"We’re going to win," said Kelly.