The sole Democrat left on stage for what was Pennsylvania's most-watched congressional district last year is political newcomer Erin McClelland. Do not expect her to shrink from what is left of the limelight.
"I was never going to be a politician. I've spent my life solving people's problems," said the founder of a substance abuse rehabilitation center in Blawnox. "When are we going to put politics aside and stop these stupid, petty arguments and ridiculous votes that aren't taking us anywhere and start solving the real problems Americans are facing?"
Mrs. McClelland of New Kensington is looking to unseat U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, who ousted incumbent 12th District Democrat Mark Critz in November 2012. When Mr. Critz -- an aide to the late congressional warhorse Jack Murtha -- announced earlier this month that he would instead run for lieutenant governor next year, that left her party's hopes of recapturing the seat in 2014 with her.
There was more outside, anonymously funded television advertising aired in last year's 12th District battle than in any other congressional race nationwide, most of it backing Mr. Rothfus or attacking his opponent. Next year, with Mr. Critz bowing out, national experts see the freshman Republican cruising toward re-election.
To reverse that perception, Mrs. McClelland will have to close a major fundraising gap in her first run for office and get herself known to voters from the Ohio border in Beaver County southeast into part of Somerset County.
For now, that means introducing herself to Democratic benefactors around southwestern Pennsylvania, including those in organized labor, and taking a lot of shots at the arch-conservative record of Mr. Rothfus. She regularly faults him for voting against the Violence Against Women Act and Superstorm Sandy relief and signing on to the no-tax pledge from fiscal conservatives Americans For Tax Reform.
"I'm a pragmatist, top to bottom, and I think Mr. Rothfus is a pure ideologue. There is no other exercise that demonstrates pure ideology any more than signing that," she said in an interview last week. "You are telling the American people, 'I am a coward, I will not make tough decisions, I will not look at data, I will make this arbitrary decision every time regardless.' "
Mr. Rothfus joined about two-thirds of his party in January when he voted against $10 billion in relief after Superstorm Sandy, arguing it should have been offset by federal spending cuts. Mrs. McClelland noted that Johnstown -- site of the catastrophic 1889 flood that killed 2,200 -- is part of the district and said: "I spent 10 years in Catholic schools, and I missed the day where Jesus said, 'Sell out the people that are suffering the most amongst us.' I don't believe that's what this country stands for."
Mrs. McClelland, 38, was raised in the Natrona Heights section of Harrison, graduated from St. Joseph High School in 1993 and from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997 with a degree in psychology. In 2003, she received a master's in counseling and industrial organizational psychology from Chatham University.
That year she also worked for the Institute for Research Education & Training in Addiction, where she studied methods by the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative.
She founded Arche Wellness in 2006, a rehabilitation center that uses conventional and alternative treatments to treat substance abuse, depression and other maladies.
Mrs. McClelland has deep union ties: Her great-grandfather organized for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, while at Pittsburgh Plate Glass; her grandfather was a steelworker; her mother was a nurse at Citizens General Hospital in New Kensington and a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers; and her father and brother are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 29.
Today, she plans to send letters to union leaders around the area on the birthday of organizer Fannie Sellins, who was fatally shot in 1919 after she witnessed the beating of a worker outside a Natrona Heights mine.
"I have an unbelievable appreciation, not just for organized labor, but for the opportunities I have today because of it, the values it serves, and the history and the turmoil that occurred in order to get where we are today," she said.
Criticism of the Affordable Care Act was key in both Mr. Rothfus' narrow loss to former U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire in 2010 and his 2012 win over Mr. Critz. Like Mr. Critz before her, Mrs. McClelland, when asked, said she does not know whether she would have voted for Obamacare in 2009. "It's not a perfect bill," she said, but she added that "keeping the status quo is not an option. We need to do health care reform in this country."
She has a similarly careful take on President Barack Obama, saying fault for his job performance is due to the economic misery he inherited and roadblocks put up by Republicans like Mr. Rothfus.
"They said they were going to make sure he failed no matter what -- that basically we don't care whose ideas are better, or who was going to fix the country, we're out to get this guy," she said. "I don't agree with many things this president has done, but I empathize with the situation he's in."
Mr. Obama is remarkably unpopular in the district -- when stumping for Mr. Critz in Beaver last fall, former President Bill Clinton notably never mentioned the president's name. In November, Mr. Obama lost by 17 percentage points to Republican Mitt Romney, dragging down fellow Democrats, including Mr. Critz, who lost by 4 percentage points.
Last week, the Cook Political Report moved its rating on the 12th District from a "likely" to "solid" Republican hold next year. "Sabato's Crystal Ball" at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics currently judges Mr. Rothfus as "likely" to hold onto his seat. At last count, the Rothfus campaign had 10 times the money of his challenger -- $383,000 in cash to $30,000 for Mrs. McClelland.
"It's going to take a moderate-conservative kind of Democrat to win that seat," Kyle Kondik, the House editor of the "Crystal Ball" newsletter, wrote in an email. "Appalachia strikes me, generically, as kind of economically populist and socially conservative area. That's been the style of Democrats from this region."
On cultural issues, Mrs. McClelland said she comes from a family of gun owners but is not one herself. She would support some kind of expanded background checks for gun buyers, particularly to keep firearms away from the mentally ill.
She supports abortion rights but said if more support was provided to struggling mothers and their children, the procedure would not be as necessary.
"That's why I'm pro-choice -- I'm for a better choice than abortion," she said. "If we start embracing women and treating women and their unborn children with compassion and understanding and love and affection and support, then you will prevent abortions. I think that's way more effective than trying to legislate morality."
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.