ERIE, Pa. – It’s a Wednesday night in October, three weeks before Election Day, and Mike Kelly is onstage at the Erie Insurance Coliseum, home of the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters, where he finds himself playing a familiar role.
The veteran car dealer and four-term Republican congressman is relentlessly pitching what he says is a record of GOP achievement on Capitol Hill to an enthusiastic crowd who’ve gathered here for President Donald Trump’s second Keystone State rally in as many weeks.
And he’s pleading with the audience to make sure it continues.
“In Erie, we never get tired of winning. That’s who we are,” Kelly bellows as the Leader of the Free World looks on approvingly. “I’m going to ask you all to do one thing tonight … take all the enthusiasm you have tonight, and the love you have in your heart for the greatest nation in the history of mankind,and you’re going to get out and vote.”
The 70-year-old Kelly’s message is intended for Trump’s ears, but he he might as well be talking about himself.
With the path to control of the House running through Pennsylvania and a court-imposed congressional map redrawn to favor Democrats, the fight for Erie’s redrawn 16th Congressional District has taken on an unusual importance in a midterm cycle where Democrats and Republicans are scrapping for every inch of territory.
Kelly faces Democrat Ron DiNicola, a former Erie County solicitor and ex-Marine, who’s hoping the third time’s the charm for his congressional aspirations. Observers say DiNicola presents the stiffest challenge Kelly has faced in years.
The race will be a test of whether a Democratic blue wave, which is expected to flip Republican seats in the Philadelphia suburbs and perhaps even Republican-red central Pennsylvania, can reach all the way to this solidly working-class city on the edge of the midwest.
No way, says Kelly. Playing on his car dealer roots, he says he prides himself on running “the greatest service department” on Capitol Hill for his constituents. And that will make the difference.
Kelly held a 50-42 percent lead over DiNicola in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll. It strongly suggested that DiNicola had ground to make up before Election Day. More than four in 10 respondents, about the same who said they had a favorable impression of Kelly, didn’t know enough about DiNicola to form an opinion.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report listed the 16th District as “lean Republican,” in its most recent round of rankings. Political prognosticator Nathan Gonzales at Inside Elections is more optimistic at “likely Republican.”
“It’s going to be a tough one for DiNicola to win,” Mercyhurst University political science professor and pollster Joseph Morris acknowledged. “DiNicola has run a good campaign and he’s spent time in the southern part of the district, which is something that Democrats have not done. The fact his name-recognition is low makes it very challenging for him.”
The redrawn district reunified Erie County, which includes the solidly Democratic city of Erie. It also includes Kelly’s home turf of Butler County, along with Crawford, Lawrence and Mercer counties.
In conversation, Kelly hammers on the GOP tax cuts and other pocketbook issues. DiNicola, meanwhile, has tried to paint Kelly as a Trump administration loyalist who’s left the locals behind. There’s also been the standard debate over debates that seems to be a fixture of most local races.
Observers say that much, including geography and turnout, will have to break DiNicola’s way on Election Day.
He’ll need to carry all of Erie, make significant inroads in Crawford, Lawrence and Mercer counties, and “not get killed,” as one observer says, in Butler County, to come out at the right end of things.
“These are the championship rounds,” DiNicola said. “This is where we have to perform and keep our focus.”
Kelly dips into the Trump playbook: “In November, it’s promises made, promises kept,” he says.
The voters will make the final call on Nov. 6.
Copyright 2018 John L. Micek, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at [email protected]