Will a 2020 blue wave crest in Erie? Democrat Kristy Gnibus hopes so

Democratic congressional candidate Kristy Gnibus speaks at a labor rally in Ellwood City, Pa. on Oct. 17. She will face U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-16th, on Nov. 3. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Voters in northwestern Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District haven’t sent a Democrat to Harrisburg in nearly a decade. Kristy Gnibus is looking to change that.

Gnibus, a schoolteacher, single mother of two, and cancer survivor, is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, a 5-term incumbent, who’s held the seat since winning election in the Tea Party wave of 2010. She told the Capital-Star that voters are ready for a change.

“The biggest thing we truly need is someone who is going to go to Washington and advocate for the people of Western Pennsylvania,” said Gnibus, who’s making her first bid for public office this year. 

“If we keep the same person who has been in office for a decade, who has passed zero policy, we’re going to see stagnation,” she said.  

As COVID cases continue to rise in Pennsylvania, both Kelly and Gnibus have continued to adapt to campaigning during a pandemic by mixing traditional campaign methods – canvassing and literature drops, with online zoom calls, and the participating in online debates

“We’re trying to reach out to voters in any way possible – traditional TV, newspaper, and things like social media, phone banking, and zoom calls. People are happy that someone is putting in the effort and saying, ‘hey you have options’ and that’s what democracy is all about. Having options. And that’s why elections are so important.” Gnibus said.

Gnibus is running on a platform focused on bringing affordable healthcare to all Pennsylvanians, education reform, combating climate change, and building a sustainable economy.

U.S. Rep Mike Kelly.
(Oversight and Reform Committee/Flickr)

“After this election we’re going to be in a damage control phase, and the best way to elevate [the damage] is with a stimulus package,” she said. “We’ve politicized this virus and what it’s done to our health, and economy so much that we’re not able to find a solution that will help folks. So, I think the first step in addressing healthcare, education and the economy is to get a stimulus out there that is transparent. 

“Both sides are not going to agree 100 percent on every line on there, but we need to get something out there as quickly as possible because the longer we wait, the longer people are uninsured, the longer our education suffers and small businesses close their doors the larger the consequence will be.” Gnibus continued. “We know that COVID will go away, and that the economy will come back. It’s what we do in this next 100 days as soon as the election is over that will determine how that happens.”

Kelly’s platform has remained largely the same – an emphasis on growing the economy by eliminating “onerous” government regulation of the private sector, incorporating a mix of renewable and non-renewable energy jobs, as well as focusing on education reform.

Kelly’s re-election campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Kelly stumped for President Donald Trump during a stop at Erie International Airport last week, where he urged  Republicans to get out and vote.

“I want every one of you to make a commitment to get out and vote on Nov. 3, we absolutely refuse to lose,” he said. “This is your time, your solemn oath to America. We’re going to make America great again because we’re going to put Donald J. Trump back in office.” 

Trump echoed that statement, saying, “I know that you tend to vote late, which is good you know I understand it’s just the norms, but you know you got to vote, get out and vote, vote, vote.  This is the biggest election of your lifetime.” 

The U.S Election Project reports that nationally nearly 50 million Americans have engaged in early voting so far. In Pennsylvania 1.3 million early ballots had been cast as of Oct. 23. 

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report downgraded the 16th District from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican” earlier this month.  Kelly commanded a significant fundraising advantage in his most recent round of Federal Election Commission filings, raising $2.07 million to date, PoliticsPa reported Monday. Gnibus has raised $480,000 to date, PoliticsPA reported. 

The 16th District includes Erie, Crawford, Mercer, and Lawrence counties, as well as a portion of Butler County. Kelly has held the seat since it was the former 3rd Congressional District.

 In 2018, the first election after a court-ordered redrawing of the state’s congressional map, Kelly defeated Democrat Ron DiNicola, an attorney, by 4.3 percentage points.

This match-up between Kelly and Gnibus is one to watch, as Democrats, who hold nine of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional seats, look to further expand their majority on Capitol Hill.

 In 2018, DiNicola narrowed Kelly’s margin of victory. In the past, Kelly, a car salesman, beat his Democratic opponents by 10 points or more.

Gnibus, meanwhile, is looking at the home stretch as the race enters its final days.

 “I’m feeling really good. We’ve been working on this for nearly a year-and-a-half now and put in an incredible amount of hard work and were happy to see it pay off after November 3. We’ve led a very honest and transparent campaign and at the end of the day it’s something that we’ll look back on and be proud of,” she said. 

Correspondent Shayma Musa covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @Musa_Shayma.