In Pennsylvania’s typically sleepy third district, tucked way in the northwestern corner of the commonwealth, Mike Kelly is running one of the most competitive — and watched — congressional challenges in the nation.
At 62, Kelly, an auto salesman and businessman by trade, is getting into congressional politics a bit later than most. A high school football star who eventually went on to play as an offensive and defensive tackle for the famed Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, Kelly has until now contented himself with political and civic life in his native Butler County.
But after the election of Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper, things changed. Dahlkemper, a so-called Blue Dog swept into office in 2008 on the nationwide Democratic wave, defies the recent history of her district.
Northwestern Pennsylvania has voted largely Republican since sending Tom Ridge to Washington in 1983. Phil English, the man Dahlkemper defeated in 2008, had served for 14 years himself.
It’s a fairly conservative district even with the city of Erie, and Kelly, who spoke with Battle ‘10 this week, has so far run a strong campaign. The latest Franklin & Marshall poll, released on September 22, has Kelly leading by six points among likely voters.
“Like most who are running right now,” Kelly told Battle ‘10, “I’ve been so busy raising my family and my business, and I’ve believed naively that most who are going to represent us are going there for the right reasons.”
Kelly cited the government bailout and reorganization plans for General Motors as a critical turning point in his decision to run.
“Between my kids and grandkids, a lack of leadership and clarity led me to get involved. A year ago, in the spring, I was a Chevy Cadillac dealer, and a month later I was no longer going to be a dealer, no thanks to any goals I failed to met.”
“Under the new game plan, I wasn’t going to be a dealer. I was told that I can throw that away. [But] I’m not the type of person that can wipe out a 56-year relationship with a five-minute call. I thought, ‘If Mike Kelly can get that phone call, then anything could happen anywhere in the country.’”
Dahlkemper, for her part, has amassed a voting record at odds with her Blue Dog persona, having voted for the president’s health-reform bill and the stimulus package, while defending her pro-life stance despite questions about how Obamacare will impact abortion services.
In a recent ad, Dahlkemper boasts that she “voted against a bailout that helped Wall Street,” which FactCheck.org called “baloney.” The problem? Dahlkemper hadn’t been seated in Congress when the vote took place.
Kelly’s take? “If you can’t convince them, confuse them,” he joked.
“Look at her record,” challenged Kelly, “and tell me if she’s a Blue Dog. More than anything else, she’s a political opportunist and someone who leadership can count on if they need her.”
Dahlkemper has voted with Nancy Pelosi 93 percent of the time.
“I was at a meeting where she said she was ‘so proud’ of what she accomplished in 20 months. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, here’s someone so seduced within the Beltway.’ For many, it goes beyond disappointment to betrayal. They’re asking, ‘What happened to the people who said they were going to represent us?’ As I’ve told my constituents, the only difference between me and them is that my name is on the ballot.”
Kelly has picked up endorsements from the Susan B. Anthony List, American Solutions, FreedomWorks, and is receiving substantial help from the National Republican Congressional Committee to help make up for a large cash deficit compared to his opponent.
Asked about the “Pledge to America,” Kelly said, “It hits all the points that people are asking about and people are unsure about,” said Kelly. “It’s maybe a bit more wordy than I would have liked to see it, but I’m very comfortable.”
“I don’t know how you can get real specific in a document like that. I thought they addressed things pretty well.”
Not to be outdone, however, Kelly has crafted his own document, a ”Contract with the 3rd Congressional District.” Mike Kelly’s contract — drafted before the “Pledge to America” — has a straightforward, direct punchiness lacking in the GOP’s Pledge.
Kelly’s contract is only one page long, and while it eschews any grand philosophical foundation of the type that grounds the GOP’s Pledge, Kelly’s bullet-point promises leave no room for doubt about his intentions.
“The beauty is that it takes five minutes to read, and people get it,” Kelly told Battle ‘10.
Among his promises: Oppose any legislation that increases taxes. Oppose any legislation that increases deficit spending. Introduce legislation requiring a balanced budget, and a line-item veto.
And more parochially, he promises to operate at least three full-time district offices for constituent services, as well as voluntarily post office expenses online each month.
“We don’t need a big debate,” said Kelly. “Simply stop spending money. Just imagine me, overspending and then going into my showroom and saying, you’ve got to pay me a lot more because I’ve been undisciplined.”
“I don’t know anybody who looks at this agenda and says, ‘You know, I think this might work.’ It’s only humorous because it’s so preposterous. Spending will break the country in two,” Kelly told Battle ‘10.
“We’ve created a complete fantasy with where we’re headed, and we all know, if it’s a government program, it’s out of control.”