As a disclaimer, Sen. King is a small donor to the campaign of Ms. Gnibus.
Several times since I started writing for this newspaper, I have written about our hometown congressman, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Butler), who has represented Butler County since defeating Democratic representative Kathy Dahlkemper in 2010. Since his first election, Mr. Kelly has seen exactly one competitive election – after court-ordered redistricting in early 2018, he faced off with Erie lawyer Ron DiNicola in what was widely considered to be a headliner congressional race. Kelly successfully fended off DiNicola by about 5 points.
In the aftermath of that race, people have considered the race just simply out of reach from the Democratic Party, and rated Kelly as largely invulnerable in 2020. Politico, who has had it sitting at Lean R since April, is the only major forecaster to have the race as anything other than Safe Republican. The reasonings behind this are pretty straightforward – DiNicola was considered a strong recruit for Democrats in 2018, and he couldn’t pull it off, even with Gov. Wolf carrying the district by a slim margin. Democratic congressional candidates have largely thought to have hit a ‘ceiling’ in Erie County, the urban center of the district, at around 60% of the vote (DiNicola carried it with 59.32%). The remainder of the county’s strong rural lean makes it solid Republican territory and trending even deeper red. Butler County, the only other county in the district with a sizable population in Butler Township, would be fertile ground for the new generation of suburban Democrats – if not for Kelly’s homefield advantage in Butler County. Prior to serving in the Congress, Kelly served as a member of the Butler Township Council, and more famously ran Kelly Automotive, where I’m sure quite a few of you have bought your cars. Beyond the partisan inelasticity of the district, Kelly’s homefield advantage in the only other county where Democrats would be competitive, and what was thought to be a weaker recruit in Meadville teacher Kristy Gnibus, it was also widely considered that Pennsylvania would be a narrow state overall in the 2020 election.
However, on almost all fronts, this has turned out to not be the cut-and-dry race that it was previously expected to have been. Kelly’s quality as a candidate has come into question numerous times over this cycle – as far back as 2019, when he claimed to be a ‘person of color,’ up to July when it was discovered he took government Paycheck Protection Program-sponsored loans to support his car dealership, or even last week when he was one of only 16 Republicans to vote against a resolution condemning QAnon, the controversial and frequently violent pro-Trump online movement; Kelly has found himself in the spotlight significantly more frequently than even in the years prior to 2018, and not typically in a positive light. Kelly himself has largely done very little to mitigate the bad press, doubling down on the ‘person of color’ statement and blaming Gov. Wolf for forcing him to close his business and take PPP money. (Car dealerships were not forced to close in the non-essential business closure order in March, with service stations being allowed to remain open and dealerships being allowed to process sales online until their reopening several weeks later). Beyond even these specific events, Kelly has continuously voted to repeal regulations on car dealerships, with an effort to repeal regulations saying dealers cannot sell cars with unfixed safety recalls without notice and another regulation requiring dealers to sell a vehicle at the same price regardless of the buyer’s race making headlines in 2015 and 2018 respectively. However, prior to the 2018 election, these two examples were largely the only major points against his record – and those apparently weren’t enough to justify not sending him back.
Conversely, Kristy Gnibus has showed herself to be a candidate worthy of holding her own, much to the surprise of local political analysts. In a debate with Kelly this past Tuesday, Gnibus made a strong play to political moderates, dissenting with the Democratic Party on numerous occasions, presenting consistent policy situations against an incumbent widely seen as aggressive (and sweaty), and making intentional plays to rural voters south of Erie County, addressing a frequent critique of Ron DiNicola’s 2018 campaign in the process. Outside of the debate stage, Gnibus has spent plenty of time on the campaign trail (virtually and in-person) in Mercer, Lawrence, and Butler Counties, having even hosted a panel with the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance here on campus this past Wednesday. (DiNicola did not respond to invitations from both FMLA in 2018, when I was on that organization’s executive board, and a planned event with WSRU-FM never panned out). Despite a non-political background (Gnibus is a Meadville-based teacher, single mother, and cancer survivor) and no previous elected or campaign experience (DiNicola had come within striking distance of winning the same seat in 1996), Gnibus has found some success in using her personal background to connect with voters on the trail, not too dissimilar to the campaigns run by Reps. Susan Wild, Mary Gay Scanlon, Chrissy Houlahan, and Madeleine Dean here in Pennsylvania in 2018. With little crossover support for Kelly remaining since 2018, Gnibus seems likely to run in line with or possibly even outrun Vice President Joe Biden in November.
On that note – let’s talk about Vice President Biden. Prior to the past few weeks, it seemed fair to say Pennsylvania was a tossup state, with most polls showing Biden up between 2 and 4 points. However, in the wake of President Trump’s debate performance and subsequent COVID diagnosis, Mr. Biden has seen a spike in support across the country including here in Pennsylvania, with a Monmouth University poll released today showing Biden up a shocking 11% in the state – with a “worst case” low-turnout likely voter screen still having him up 8%. Yesterday, a poll from Ipsos and Reuters showed him up 5 points, with most of the poll being conducted before Trump’s COVID diagnosis, and before that, two from YouGov and the New York Times showing him up 7%.
This congressional district has a Cook PVI of R+8.
If Vice President Biden is carrying this state by anywhere near 11%, Kelly is in serious trouble – even considering his incumbency. The last Democratic member of Congress this district elected was Kathy Dahlkemper in 2008, having been carried across the line by Barack Obama’s landslide victory; and it’s wholly possible to imagine VP Biden having a similar effect this year, especially considering his sudden and drastic increase in polling across the country in the past week, not too dissimilar to what happened to Senator Obama in the last week of September 2008.
With both a national and statewide environment rapidly breaking towards Biden and an incumbent who may be weaker than originally expected running against a candidate who may be stronger than originally expected, the race here in Pennsylvania’s 16th district is perfect ground for a ‘sleeper’ Democratic flip, similar to that in Oklahoma’s 5th district or South Carolina’s 1st district in 2018. Democrats can accomplish this by breaking through the 60% ‘ceiling’ in Erie County by running up the score in the Erie suburbs to around 60% and closer to 65% in Erie proper, along with keeping margins down in Butler County by making significant concerted efforts to appeal to Butler Township voters. Additionally helpful would be running up wide margins in New Castle, Sharon, and Farrell, all of which are Democratic towns with large nonwhite populations, as well as Meadville (home of Allegheny College) and Slippery Rock. Rep. Kelly knows this, too, and his debate performance showed it. Kelly was very noticeably muted compared to his usual self – praising Trump by name only a handful of times, compared to normal speeches where it’s his main approach, making several explicit outreaches to Erie County voters, and using his closing speech to discuss bipartisanship, going as far as to invoke the late Rep. John Lewis, the Civil Rights Movement hero and prominent Democrat who Kelly served under on the House Ways & Means Committee. (Before his death this summer, Lewis had denounced Kelly’s rhetoric on multiple occasions). While a poll has not been released since Gnibus released an internal poll this past summer showing her trailing by 8 points (with 13% undecided), it seems plausible that Kelly has his own internals that have him spooked – the theory some of us on Pennsylvania political twitter came up with was that, indeed, the Erie ceiling is starting to develop some cracks.
But regardless of what the final result may be – it seems incredibly shortsighted to consider this race “safe Republican” – and hopefully this message gets to the folks at Cook Political, Inside Elections, RealClearPolitics, and the UVA Center for Politics sooner rather than later. After all, no major pundit noticed this district was competitive in 2018 until mid-September – perhaps it’s time for another reckoning just like that one.
When reached for comment about this piece, Ms. Gnibus’s campaign responded with “that’s phenomenal – an an accurate statement about the race”. Mr. Kelly could not be reached for comment.