O'Donnell, Dahlkemper win hotly contested races for U.S. House

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Monroeville businessman Steve O'Donnell last night defeated Beth Hafer, the daughter of former Pennsylvania state Treasurer Barbara Hafer, in a tight race for the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy.

Mr. O'Donnell, 62, poured tens of thousands of dollars of his own money into the campaign, overcoming Ms. Hafer's significant name recognition.

Brien Wall, 59, an Allegheny County Democratic Committee member from Upper St. Clair, was running far behind.

In the state's northwestern corner, Kathy Dahlkemper, 50, of Erie, bested three other Democrats in the 3rd Congressional District and will take on U.S. Rep. Phil English, R-Erie.

Neither Mr. Murphy, an Upper St. Clair Republican who was first elected in 2002, nor Mr. English, in office since 1994, faced opponents in the GOP primary.

But the national Democratic Party has said it will target both incumbents in the November general election.

Two years ago, Mr. O'Donnell came within 240 votes of beating state Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, in the primary race for the 25th House District nomination. In this race, he waged a competitive campaign across the much larger 18th Congressional District -- which covers parts of Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland counties, including Pittsburgh's southern and eastern suburbs.

"I feel good," Mr. O'Donnell said from his Greensburg campaign office last night. "I'm really deeply honored that I was given this opportunity."

He had his biggest lead in Allegheny County, where he had received the endorsement of the county Democratic committee. The race was much closer in Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Mr. O'Donnell, a co-founder of a holding company that invests in real estate and other businesses, contributed at least $260,000 to his own campaign, according to finance records.

He is also a Navy veteran and the former executive director of the Westmoreland County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens.

On the trail, Mr. O'Donnell stressed both his business experience and his years as an advocate for people with mental retardation as proof of his readiness for Congress.

"I think it was a good, hard-fought race," Ms. Hafer, 35, of Mt. Lebanon, said after calling Mr. O'Donnell to concede.

She garnered support from her family name and political connections. But she also campaigned fiercely, stressing her personal experience as vice president of her mother's company, Hafer & Associates, a government consulting firm.

The campaign turned negative in closing weeks, with Ms. Hafer raising questions about Mr. O'Donnell's tenure as the head of a Greensburg nonprofit agency that went bankrupt in 1997.

Mr. O'Donnell said Ms. Hafer misled the public about his role.

He, in turn, criticized her history as a registered Republican. His campaign sent out a mailing that paired a head shot of Ms. Hafer with a photo of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

But the two candidates share views on major issues. Both are opponents of the Iraq war and support a single-payer, universal health care system.

Any race against Mr. Murphy will be costly. He has raised at least $904,000 this election cycle.

"I believe that if we represent the issues that are important to us -- important to Democrats -- I think we'll win," Mr. O'Donnell said.

District 3

Mrs. Dahlkemper entered yesterday's voting with a sense that she was the front-runner in the race for the District 3 congressional seat.

Not because of her name recognition. Her husband, Dan, is distantly related to the former owners of a chain of catalog showroom stores in the area.

Not because her early polling showed that she was as a favorite.

There were still 47 percent undecided.

And not because she started with the largest bankroll. Opponent Tom Myers eventually surpassed her in fund-raising.

The telling point, she said, was in the final debate, when all four candidates were invited to ask a question of the opposing candidate of their choosing.

All three of her foes targeted her.

That and the response she got canvassing the sections of seven counties that make up District 3 sent her into yesterday's voting with a feeling of confidence.

"The last couple weeks, going door-to-door, everyone was very positive," she said from her victory celebration at a club in Erie. "I kept thinking, 'Wow, this bodes very well for my campaign.'"

Mrs. Dahlkemper, a political neophyte, now advances to the national stage, taking on Republican Mr. English, 51, as he pursues his eighth consecutive term.

"I don't have any butterflies. And I didn't have any tonight," Mrs. Dahlkemper said. "I'm confident I can do this, and if the voters want me, I'm ready to go and work hard for them."

Mrs. Dahlkemper said primary voters seemed to identify with her background, "life experiences" that include a time as a single mother raising a family without health care, to her current success as a business owner.

The next six months, however, promise to be a workout for her team.

"Phil English has a lot of name recognition and a lot of money," she said. "We certainly have our work cut out for us."


Correction/Clarification: (Published April 24, 2008) Kathy Dahlkemper, winner of the Democratic nomination for the 3rd Congressional District seat, was a single mother of one after her divorce from her first husband. She later had four children with her second husband. This story as originally published April 23, 2008 about Tuesday's election results incorrectly said that she was at one time a single mother of five.

Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183. Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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