By Dennis B. Roddy
HERMITAGE, Pa. -- The Women's Expo, with its wall-to-wall vendors and storehouse of voting age ladies would seem a welcoming place to graze on the prairie of identity politics, but Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Erie, had to move through at a fugitive's pace.
She arrived 90 minutes late, after getting stuck at a fundraiser with Joe Biden an hour away in Pittsburgh.
"You don't turn down the vice president," explained Barbara Bracken, one of the Dahlkemper volunteers. Harry Lutton, a retired staffer from nearby Grove City College, smiled tightly. "That's one of the reasons she's going to lose," he said. "She's stuck with him."
Stuck, yes, but doing her best to wriggle free, if only by channelling Edith Piaf and declaring she regrets nothing. Health Care Reform? The centerpiece of the current Republican uprising? "I think it definitely was not adequately explained," she said. Death panels. Abortion funding. Those things were confected and passed around like little poison pills.
The stimulus bill? It bloated the deficit, cost billions and the lost jobs aren't exactly rushing back in time for Nov. 2.
"The Recovery and Reinvestment Act was very necessary to keep us from going into a depression," she said.
She came on a wave of change two years ago, ousting Phil English, an eight-term Republican incumbent known for his moderation in a state that hews to the far middle. Now, three weeks out, she trails Mr. Lutton's preferred candidate, Mike Kelly, a Republican car dealer from Butler County. That's the problem with tsunamis: they sweep in, but they drag everything back out.
"I think people in this country have some kind of amnesia," Mrs. Dahlkemper said. "I came in on a change election and we've made many of the positive changes people asked for."
In an era of permanent anxiety, every change demands another, often as not a return to preceding conditions. In the hall at the VFW here, people milled about the tables. At the adjacent bar, the big screen televisions were airing national Republican commercials showing Mrs. Dahlkemper on the screen with Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker and Official Hobgoblin of the GOP 2010 campaign.
Nobody's especially angry at Mrs. Dahlkemper. Talk to the voters here and they rarely betray hostility. They're just not excited with her. It's not as if they bought a car. They can trade in every two years and seem to lean toward a new model.
Repeatedly, polls have shown Mr. Kelly running ahead of Mrs. Dahlkemper. In fact, his numbers in some instances outstrip his name recognition. Mrs. Dahlkemper has tried her best -- raising massive money to buy media, especially "down-district," which means the Pittsburgh market. She resurrected a trope from her 2008 campaign, saying her opponent wants to privatize social security. Where Phil English was depicted as out-of-touch, Mr. Kelly, the car dealer, is shown gripping money and dubbed "Cadillac Mike Kelly."
But it all seems oddly out-of-place, a match struck once that will not relight.
"She's no longer the outsider or the alternative," said Mr. English, now a lawyer with a top-tier Washington firm. "In Erie and down-district she won't benefit from being able to run against me."
In many respects, Mrs. Dahlkemper's dilemma captures the variegated forms of anti-incumbency. In 2008, voters went to the polls in an "change" election predicated on the historical first of a youthful and, yes, black president, but just as much by the rejection of political stagnancy. The Republicans were viewed as entrenched and out-of-touch.
Now it is 2010 and voters area again pushing for change. The Tea Party movement touched a chord with people who somehow sense they voted for Kennedy and got Carter. President Obama's numbers are abysmal and Mrs. Dahlkemper is not the only candidate to find him or herself rhetorically tied both to the Obama administration and Mrs. Pelosi.
The disdain for Ms. Pelosi is hard to suss out. In San Francisco she would rank as a conservative. In Washington she ranks as a deft leader. How else to explain how she negotiated the passage of a Health Care Reform bill amid a din of propaganda that declared it, in equal parts, a secret plot to fund abortion or a conspiracy to chain America's women to the delivery table. In fact the bill was neither, but Mrs. Dahlkemper's vote in its favor exposed her to attacks by anti-abortion activists. She can argue unceasingly that the bill doesn't promote abortion. It won't help, first because the ceaseless argument keeps her tied down when she needs to promote other accomplishments and, second, because some voters are simply determined to believe otherwise. Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire in the adjacent 4th Congressional District knew this much and now doesn't have to defend the bill because he didn't vote for it.
As Mrs. Dahlkemper hightailed it back to her district, Mr. Kelly prowled the mountains. Last night, he preached to the choir at Grove City College, where the campus Republicans gathered to hear him. His Butler County home could prove a boost. The district's Democrats are centered in large measure to the north, in Erie. But about 55 percent of the district's vote is outside Erie County and any city-country rivalry is likely to work in Mr. Kelly's favor. It would give Butler County it's first congressman since Gary Myers, a plant foreman, went to the House in 1974 on behalf of the 4th District, took a two-term taste, and retired.
Mr. Kelly still possesses the newcomer's appetite for campaigning. Last night, well after most decent candidates were at home charting out their future staffing arrangements, he was on the campus at Grove City, speaking to the campus Republicans. Grove City was once voted the second most stone-cold sober campus by the Princeton Review, edged out only by Brigham Young. Students here are conservative in the very bone. It was more a chat than a speech with an audience that could well be more conservative than he.
Republicans chairman Andrew Patterson asked him to tell the story he'd told about what got him into the race. For Mr. Kelly it was learning that the man Mrs. Dahlkemper calls "Cadillac Mike Kelly" was about to lose his Cadillac franchise.
He said the call came last year after the federal government took over General Motors. A regional representative phoned to ask him if he wanted to remain a GM dealer. Mr. Kelly's father started the dealership in 1953 and, yes, Mr. Kelly said, that was his plan.
They told him he would remain a Chevrolet dealer but the Cadillac franchise was gone. He'd met his sales quotas and had a long established franchise, he said, but he was simply told the decision had been made for him.
"It was a wakeup call. I really didn't believe that could happen. Not in America," he said. Mr. Kelly is among five disenfranchised or otherwise angry auto dealers now running for Congress.
While he dislikes the government's involvement in GM in particular and markets in general, Mr. Kelly concedes he's done $600,000 in business in the government-backed "cash for clunkers" rebate program that ended last year.
"There was a pass through. The dealers fronted that money," he said. Rebates went to the buyers and the dealers were reimbursed. By the government.
Mr. Kelly doesn't seem certain how much good it did anyway.
"It created a temporary surge, but again it was a case where the government where the government picked and chose who was going to be the recipient."
By 10 p.m., Mr. Kelly was walking in the darkness at the Grove City campus, on his way to a session of debate prep. He faces Mrs. Dahlkemper in a debate sponsored by AARP. Affable, a former Notre Dame lineman, he talked of how little the stimulus package for which Mrs. Dahlkemper voted has meant to him.
"My business is off 40 percent," he said. "So, between the cars program and the stimulus, our business is still off 40 percent. The only difference now is we've put $1 trillion towards it."
Some elections aren't ideological. Sometimes they just turn on someone's mood. Mike Kelly is a car dealer who feels like he got rolled, and he's figuring he's not the only one in his district that feels the same way. The tsunami just might be dragging Kathy Dahlkemper back out to sea.
Photos: Dennis Roddy. Dahlkemper in Hermitage. Kelly in Grove City.