WASHINGTON -- Erie's Kathy Dahlkemper has been weighing a run for her old seat in Congress and said she will decide by early summer whether she will enter the race.
Washington Democrats have been courting Ms. Dahlkemper, who served one term before losing her seat to Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, last fall, but she said personal and political concerns are keeping her undecided.
Ms. Dahlkemper, 53, said the mammoth time commitment of a Congressional run as well as the hard-to-gauge political climate in fall 2012 are the key considerations in making her decision.
Perhaps the most difficult calculation for Ms. Dahlkemper -- and potential candidates in many states -- is the unsettled nature of congressional redistricting. In Pennsylvania the Republican-controlled process could stretch for several more months.
Ms. Dahlkemper could be in a different district than Mr. Kelly or a district drawn to a significant GOP advantage.
"Will it be a district that's even winnable for a Democrat or not?" she said. "That's something you probably don't even know before making the decision."
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said at a news conference a few weeks ago the organization is pressing forward with recruiting despite the unsettled district lines. He cited in particular the fact that five Republican-held districts in the eastern part of Pennsylvania voted Democratic in the past two presidential election cycles.
"That is a very intriguing field of opportunity for us," he said. "That field is affected by redistricting, which has not yet been settled in Pennsylvania and so that will shake out, but we're not letting redistricting slow us down in terms of recruiting."
The congressional campaign committee recruiting effort is led by Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, who has been in frequent contact with her old colleague, Ms. Dahlkemper. In addition to the five eastern swing districts, the committee is looking at an aggressive push in the Third District, where Ms. Dahlkemper would have a formidable name recognition and fund-raising base from her term in office.
National Democrats were emboldened by the recent special election win by incoming Rep. Kathy Hochul in an upstate New York district bordering Lake Erie, not far from northwest Pennsylvania. The victory prompted Mr. Israel to proclaim that "the House is in play," meaning he believes Democrats have a shot to win the 24 seats they need to regain the chamber they lost in 2010.
He said the campaign committee was six months ahead of schedule in making that claim because of the messaging success Democrats have had in attacking the House GOP budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan. The budget -- which cleared the House and failed in a Senate vote -- is controversial for its plan to convert Medicare into a voucher-type system. In addition to attacks based on tax loopholes for oil companies, Mr. Israel said the successful message in the New York special election was "Medicare, Medicare, Medicare; oil companies, oil companies, oil companies."
Mr. Israel noted that the party's 2012 strategy will not rest entirely on those themes, and he has recent history as a reason not to get overconfident. Democratic Rep. Mark Critz's special election win for a Johnstown-area seat in May 2010 did nothing to blunt the fall's Republican wave.
Ms. Dahlkemper acknowledged the cultural similarities between her former district and Ms. Hochul's, but said it doesn't necessarily presage victory next year.
"Eighteen months from now is a lifetime in the world of politics," she said. "So I look at that and say obviously that's very positive, but I obviously take it with a grain of salt."
Ms. Schwartz said "there is some other interest" in the seat. "We like to have options," she said, without elaborating on other potential candidates. The Erie Times-News has reported that Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott. and former Democratic nominee Ron DiNicola are being discussed for a run.
Ms. Dahlkemper sounded the same notes as her Washington colleagues talking about Medicare and Republican budget priorities.
"Those things concern me," she said. "I'm looking at the issues, too, and as I go forward and watching what goes on in Washington and seeing if there's any change in the opinion and general feeling of the Third District."
Republicans are banking on the Third not feeling much differently about Ms. Dahlkemper.
"I think Northwest Pennsylvanians have already rejected her record of higher taxes and more spending, and the fact that she's reconsidering goes against the interest of voters in that area," said National Republican Campaign Committee spokesman Tory Mazzola.
"I think Democrats are missing the electorate if they're thinking all they want to hear about is Medicare. They want to hear about jobs; they want to hear about spending; they want to hear about turning the economy around."
Since leaving office, Ms. Dahlkemper said she took a seminar in Harvard's executive education program and has been doing speaking engagements and nonprofit work. She has shied away from fully engaging in her Erie landscaping business because she would have to drop it if she gets into the race -- which remains a big if.
"There's no crystal ball that can tell me this will go my way or it won't," she said. "It's expensive. It's a lot of work. It's a huge personal commitment. I'm not going into this lightly."