Election 2010: For Dahlkemper, Democratic leaders dig deep
July 26, 2010 4:00 AM
U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper of Erie
By Daniel Malloy Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper has a Democratic foothold in a Republican-leaning northwestern Pennsylvania district, and her House colleagues are putting a lot of cash into keeping her there.
Through April, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ms. Dahlkemper ranked No. 8 among all members of the House in campaign receipts from the campaigns and political action committees of other House members during the 2010 campaign cycle.
A closer look reveals that four members ahead of her on that list are running for the Senate and another two won special elections last year -- meaning Ms. Dahlkemper has received the second-most money from colleagues to defend a House seat this year.
She had hauled in $204,500 through April -- $114,500 from leadership PACs and $90,000 from colleagues' campaigns. For filings through June 30, Ms. Dahlkemper brought in another $38,750 from those sources, for a total of $243,250 this cycle; a full analysis of all House members' receipts for the most recent filing period was unavailable.
Experts say the amount of those donations is a sign of Ms. Dahlkemper's perceived vulnerability in a year when Republicans think they can take back the House by winning districts like hers.
"It's certainly a signal that her colleagues think that this is one of the seats that can be in play this year and she is in a marginal seat that they want to hold," said Anthony Corrado, a professor and campaign finance expert at Colby College in Maine.
"If you look at recent election cycles you find that the two parties act like two teams when it comes to trying to defend the seats you think might shift. You tend to see a lot of leadership PAC money and campaign committee money."
The contributions come primarily from party leaders, who tend to have much more money than they need to win their own races. They also have the most robust leadership PACs, organizations with names like Victory Now -- run by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. -- that funnel donations to candidates who need them. Under campaign finance laws, PACs can take in and distribute larger donations than campaign committees.
Ms. Dahlkemper's campaign has not given to others, and she does not have a leadership PAC.
"It's something that over the years has increased in popularity, the setting up of leadership PACs and greasing the palms of one's political brethren when they're in political peril or when you want to cozy up to them," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.
"This is probably much more a function of bolstering [Ms. Dahlkemper's] candidacy than to try to cozy up to her because she is in some high-level position of power."
According to the analysis by the Post-Gazette and CRP, Ms. Dahlkemper has received some of her biggest gifts from members of the Democratic leadership. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has given her $15,000, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., have chipped in $14,000 each.
But Ms. Dahlkemper has a wide base of donors among her colleagues: 71 current and former members, all Democrats, have added to her coffers, including much of the Pennsylvania delegation.
"The congresswoman works hard in Washington and I think she is well-respected by her colleagues, and she's not afraid to ask for support. It's really that simple," said Dahlkemper campaign manager Tina Mengine.
"I think there's a lot of races that are tougher than ours and those members don't necessarily do as well with member money. I think members give out money to members that they want to see re-elected, that they respect and that they think have a viable opportunity to win."
But there's no question Ms. Dahlkemper is running one of the more hotly contested House races in the country. A freshman from Erie, she is the first Democrat to represent that corner of the state in 25 years. While electing Ms. Dahlkemper in 2008, her constituents also narrowly backed Republican John McCain for president.
Unlike her neighbor to the south, Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, Ms. Dahlkemper voted for controversial health care reform -- after helping to forge an 11th-hour compromise on abortion funding -- and has been a staunch advocate for the legislation. Still, she has not always toed the Democratic leadership line, voting against cap-and-trade climate legislation and joining Blue Dog Democrats in a recent uprising against spending.
Her opponent this fall is Mike Kelly, a car dealer and former city councilman from Butler who emerged from a wild, six-candidate GOP primary.
An internal Kelly campaign poll last week, provided to the Post-Gazette by the National Republican Campaign Committee, showed Mr. Kelly ahead by 11 percentage points. Respected political handicappers Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook both rate the race as a toss-up.
Mr. Kelly's campaign manager, Josh Snyder, said he will be using the Democratic leadership's support against Ms. Dahlkemper during a campaign that will focus on the often controversial agenda of the Democratic Congress.
"It's a perk and privilege that comes with incumbency, especially when you're talking about an incumbent like Congresswoman Dahlkemper," Mr. Snyder said of Ms. Dahlkemper's fund-raising. "And in our sense, people in Northwest Pennsylvania think Congresswoman Dahlkemper has a constituency of one: Speaker Pelosi."
The incumbent will be well-funded for the tussle. Through June 30, Ms. Dahlkemper had $1 million on hand while Mr. Kelly, whose funds largely were drained by the primary race, had $103,000.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Shripal Shah said Mr. Kelly's lack of funding is a sign of weakness.
"Mike Kelly is struggling because he's pushing an out-of-touch agenda that is wrong for Pennsylvania families," Mr. Shah wrote in an e-mail. "Folks aren't supporting him now, and he shouldn't expect them to support him come November."
The DCCC is pitching in more than rhetoric. The organization, according to a report on the National Journal's website, has reserved more than $1 million for four weeks of television advertising in Pittsburgh and Erie -- though a portion of the Pittsburgh spending will go to advertising for Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown. Ms. Dahlkemper is also one of 40 members in the DCCC's Frontline program to aid Democratic incumbents in tight races.
National Republican Campaign Committee spokesman Tory Mazzola said it was too early to discuss national GOP plans for the district, but he commended Mr. Kelly for "running a strong grass-roots campaign." The big spending plan by the DCCC, Mr. Mazzola said, "shows that Speaker Pelosi is worried about one of her most loyal supporters in Congress."