Can the Dems topple U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly in PA-16 in 2020? | Analysis

August 24, 2019 6:30 am

Not long ago the idea that Congressman Mike Kelly could lose re-election would be deemed delusional. After all, no Democrat even bothered to run against him in 2016.

Then came the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which redrew the commonwealth’s Congressional map to counteract Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 election cycle. Suddenly Kelly’s 16th district became a plausible pick-up opportunity for the Democrats.

But just how plausible?

Kelly’s old (3rd) district from 2013-2018. Via Kelly’s new (16th) district. Via Wikipedia.

Even with the new lines, Kelly still seemed safe. Sure, he lost some rural areas but the heart of the district was still the Appalachian section of the state where Democrats were hemorrhaging votes.

(Key: Navy – 65%+ Clinton, Blue 60-64.9%, Royal Blue 55%-59.9%, Dodger Blue 50%-54.9%, Light Sky Blue <50%. Light Salmon <50% Trump, Coral 50%-54.9%, Orange Red 55%-59.9%, Red 60%-64.9%, Maroon 65%+. Ties are yellow. Map by Nick Field via Dave’s Redistricting.)

On top of that, Erie suddenly seemed encouraging after Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee to win the county since Ronald Reagan’s historic 1984 landslide.

As a result, Kelly was confident, perhaps too confident.

In early 2017, he accused former President Barack Obama of running “a shadow government” since he was still living in Washington D.C. (the Obamas were waiting for their youngest daughter Sasha to graduate high school).

Meanwhile Democrats nominated Ron DiNicola, a lawyer and ex-Marine from Erie. As the blue wave in the House continued to build, PA-16 all of sudden started to pop up on the list of races to watch

Speaking to PennLive in 2018, DiNicola was optimistic about his chances.

“I think we’re feeling pretty good,” he said. “We’re executing well on all fronts. People are very concerned about a congressman [Kelly] who isn’t working for them … We’re peaking at exactly the right time,” he told PennLive’s John L. Micek at the time.

Indeed, a New York Times/Siena College poll a month before Election Day showed Kelly holding a 50-42 percent lead over DiNicola It strongly suggested that DiNicola had ground to make up before Election Day. More than four in 10 respondents, about the same who said they had a favorable impression of Kelly, didn’t know enough about DiNicola to form an opinion.

In October of last year, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report listed the seat as “lean Republican.”

In the end, Kelly won a fifth term by a too-close-for-comfort four points.

What does it mean for 2020?

So was this a one-off event triggered by the sudden shifting of the map and a Democratic wave election, or a sign of more battles to come?

DiNicola performed strongly in his home county of Erie and well in cities like New Castle and Hermitage. Nevertheless, DiNicola ran behind Gov. Tom Wolf especially in Butler County where some blue seeds appear to be sprouting in the areas outside of Pittsburgh.

This is particularly noteworthy because Kelly’s only 2020 opponent so far is Dan Smith Jr.

Smith ran against state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe last year in the 12th legislative district, which is located in southern Butler County, and ran better than Kelly in a couple areas.

As for Kelly, much like his GOP colleague, U.S. Rep Scott Perry, R-10th District, he’s making no attempt to run to the center. When recently discussing why he wasn’t offended by President Trump’s racist attacks against four Democratic Congresswomen, Kelly asserted that “I’m a person of color. I’m white.” The remark was picked up by the national press and widely mocked online.

Despite all this, Kelly likely remains the DCCC’s third-highest priority in PA behind Perry and Brian Fitzpatrick. Therefore it’ll take an impressive performance from the entire Democratic ticket all across the commonwealth to toss him out in 2020.

Although unlike past cycles, such a scenario is now a real possibility

Nick Field, of Bucks County, is a frequent Capital-Star contributor. 

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Nick Field
Nick Field

Correspondent Nick Field covers Philadelphia and its suburbs for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.