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Anatomy of a Battleground District

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

Patty House is the coffee barista with the warm smile behind an old-fashioned soda fountain in Cummings Candy & Coffee. She likes Kelly’s family and community values: “He and his family have run a successful business for over 50 years. I think Washington needs more people representing us who know how to run things.”

House, 41, a Democrat, has never supported a Republican but is tired of Washington’s deafness to people in the country’s “flyover” regions.

Camden Wood stands on Cummings’ century-old checkerboard floor, contemplating whether to order a decaf and catch some sleep after an all-night shift or just “espresso it up” and enjoy the sunny summer day.

Fresh scones, hand-dipped chocolates and the heavy scent of coffee fill the old-time dining area, complete with an ornate pressed-tin ceiling. Customers are scattered among wooden benches of the family-owned business.

Wood, 37, stands out with his tattoos, pierced ears and faux-hawk locks. He’s a Democrat who’s always worked in union jobs.

“I have to admit part of why I like Kelly is that he is not ‘that guy’ out of Washington,” he says. “I bebop down his street on my bike, all inked up, and … he is always the first to smile, wave and have something interesting to say, long before he was running for Congress.”

In a wave election year, a race may pivot on something as simple yet meaningful to voters as that.

“In a sense you could say that the fate of Kathy Dahlkemper can serve as a kind of bellwether,” says Jay Cost, a political scientist who specializes in analyzing House races.

“All those House Dems who won election in 2008 because of crossover voting, who then turned around and supported Obama’s policies, are going to be in trouble, much the same way she is.”

In the Democrats’ 2006 midterm sweep, Pennsylvania flipped four House seats held by Republicans. This year, the Democrats at risk are Reps. Dahlkemper, Patrick Murphy, Mark Critz and Paul Kanjorski, as well as the seat left open by Joe Sestak’s U.S. Senate run.

The reasons why can be found on any Main Street in their districts – not among Republicans, but among independents and Democrats who supported them the last time.

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