ERIE – If you wanted to find a place on a United States map that showed the heart of the Rust Belt, this would be it. Its business of manufacturing things has seen better days.
Voters here, and in sister cities from eastern Pennsylvania to the state of Indiana, likely will decide which political party controls Congress.
These are Reagan Democrats who President Clinton won back to some extent in 1992, and who President Bush had disgusted by 2008.
These voters are borderline-disgusted again, as the nation heads into the 2010 midterm election.
In a year of voter disconnect, the Obama administration’s lack of focus on jobs and the economy – and too much focus on health care – has pitted such traditional Democrat-leaning voters against anything remotely associated with Washington.
Democrats have a Rust Belt problem. Here are some congressional races in three states to watch:
Pa. District 3 – Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper won the seat in 2008 because it was a Democratic year, Erie was in bad economic shape, and the GOP incumbent had vulnerabilities. This is a tougher year and the DCCC will be spread more thinly; she supported the health care bill, and a lot will depend on how that vote is viewed five months from now.
Pa. District 10 – Rep. Chris Carney was very lucky when he ran against scandal-plagued Republican opponents in 2006 and 2008. On the other hand, this is just a brutal district for Democrats. With Carney's vote for health care, he will not get off as easily as he has the past two elections. Still, he might get lucky again.
Pa. District 11 – Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta, a Republican, kept it close last cycle in a tough year for his party. If he can raise more money and broaden his appeal beyond the immigration issue, the GOP will have a great shot this year against incumbent Rep. Paul Kanjorski. (Democrats probably would have preferred that Kanjorski, retire so they could start new with someone unsullied by Washington.)
Pa. District 17 – Rep. Tim Holden knows he’s in for his toughest fight since a redistricting race against then-Rep. Paul Gekas, a Republican, in 2002. This GOP district could very well turn anti-incumbent this year, even for someone such as Holden who is viewed as independent.
Ohio District 16 – Rep. John Boccieri has staked out a very moderate voting record and has a good profile as an Air Force reservist who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. A strong campaigner and a real up-and-comer among Democrats, his flip from no to yes on health care made things less certain – and more complicated with district voters.
Ohio District 18 – In 2006, Democrat Zach Space won the seat held by Republican Bob Ney, who was ensnared in the Abramoff scandal and ultimately went to prison. Now that the political environment has changed, Space will find it difficult to hang on, worsened by his flip-flop on health care. Republican John McCain won this district by 8 points in the 2008 presidential election; it is hard to imagine it not going back to Republicans.
Indiana District 2 – As in all of these districts, jobs will be the main issue here; local unemployment remains higher than the national average. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D, has not had any strong challenges, but Republican state Rep. Jackie Walorski will be formidable. She has a strong grassroots army; if she raises money, this race would be fascinatingly close.
Indiana District 8 – This is a district known as the “Bloody 8th,” for its very competitive elections over the years. And it will be difficult for Dems to hold because it is an open seat in a bad year.
Indiana District 9 – Southeastern Indiana, including the university town of Bloomington, is a culturally conservative, economically populist district with patches of liberalism. Obama, Kerry and Gore all lost here. The key for Rep. Baron Hill, D, is to run up the score in college areas while not getting crushed elsewhere.