The Memo: Rust Belt race hinges on Trump

The Memo: Rust Belt race hinges on Trump

BUTLER, Pa. — President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers release defense bill with parental leave-for-Space-Force deal House Democrats expected to unveil articles of impeachment Tuesday Houston police chief excoriates McConnell, Cornyn and Cruz on gun violence MORE is doing everything he can to stop a Democratic blue wave in November. But no one, in either party, knows for sure if he will succeed.

The key question is whether the support that lifted the president to his shock election victory in 2016 will prove transferrable to his party’s candidates.


The stakes are huge. If Democrats take control of the House of Representatives after the Nov. 6 midterm elections, not only will they be able to frustrate the administration’s legislative agenda; they will also be able to compel testimony from Trump allies on any number of awkward topics — and, if they want to, launch impeachment proceedings. 

The struggle for the House will be decided in a number of smaller battles, like the one being waged in Pennsylvania’s new 16th Congressional District.

On one side is incumbent Rep. Mike KellyGeorge (Mike) Joseph KellyAlcohol industry races to save tax break by year-end deadline Democrats ramp up oversight efforts over 'opportunity zone' incentive Genetic counselors save health care dollars when involved in the testing process MORE (R-Pa.), an ebullient car dealer first elected to Congress in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave. On the other is lawyer Ron DiNicola, a Democrat who has never held major elected office.

Predictions for the district are made more complicated because its boundaries were redrawn as part of the Keystone State’s wholesale redistricting at the hands of the state’s Supreme Court earlier this year.

According to a New York Times analysis, Trump’s margin of victory over Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFBI head rejects claims of Ukrainian 2016 interference Comey in op-ed after IG report: 'Barr needs to stop acting like a Trump spokesperson' Trump tops list of most tweeted about politicians in 2019 MORE in the old district was 26 points. In the new one, it was 20 points.

That’s the kind of margin that would suggest Kelly should be safe. But that’s not the case.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report considers the seat “Lean Republican,” instead of “Likely Republican.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $461,000 on the race, according to — an investment that has come overwhelmingly in the past three weeks, and would not be made if there was no possibility of a Democratic victory.

Even more evidence of the competitiveness in the district came on Wednesday evening, when Trump came to its biggest city, Erie, for a campaign-style rally.

The lines to see the president were hundreds of yards long three hours before he was due to speak. By the time he appeared, promptly, at 7 p.m., the 6,500-capacity Erie Insurance Arena was packed.

This was Trump Country in full effect. Red "Make America Great Again" hats and T-shirts with slogans like “God, Guns and Trump” abounded. The president’s attacks on the Democratic “mob” that he said had sought to bring down his Supreme Court nominee, Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Supreme Court denies Trump request to immediately resume federal executions House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law MORE, were cheered loudly.

Trump also brought Kelly on stage with him, declaring him a “tremendous man.”

The next day, when The Hill met with Kelly in Butler, a handsome town toward the southern edges of the district that also serves as his political base, he acknowledged that his race is “very competitive.”

If he were to lose, “it won’t be for lack of effort, let me put it that way,” he said, adding that the outcome will be determined not by his own commitment but by that of voters.

“Are they going to sit back and say, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal, President Trump is in the White House?’ ” If they do so and Democrats prevail, he warned, “they will see a dramatic difference in the way the House of Representatives is run and the way the Senate is run … What Judge Kavanaugh went through will be child’s play when you see what happens to this presidency and this administration if we’re not in the majority.”

The venue for the interview, chosen by Kelly’s campaign, was Mac’s Route 8 Cafe, a hearty, unpretentious spot not far from the congressman’s car dealership, founded by his father.

Kelly was greeted by constituents, some wanting to talk politics, one woman petitioning for help in finding a second job.

The incumbent seemed helpful and friendly without making too many specific promises.

To The Hill, the congressman interspersed a defense of his own record with tales of his personal relationship with the president.

He related tales of meetings with Trump in which the president called on “my car guy” — Kelly — for evaluations of how certain policies may play or for affirmations of his own dealmaking abilities.

On the other hand, Kelly said:

“People tell me, ‘You’re really close with the president, aren’t you?’ And I say, ‘Well, let’s define close.' He sees me, he knows me. I’ve been down to the White House quite a few times. But I want you to think about something: This is a guest list of 435 in the House and 100 in the Senate … If you had a party and you invited 535 people, would you say you had a close relationship with all of them?”

Still, there is no suggestion that Kelly is distancing himself from Trump. It’s the reverse.

He defended Trump, even over his controversial comments on the violence in Charlottesville, Va., last year. He endorsed the view that there is a “deep state” at work trying to bring Trump down.

More generally, regarding Trump’s appeal, Kelly said: “It was so unique and it was so unfettered. And you know who he's beholden to? Nobody.”

Trump won the state in 2016 by a whisker — part of the traditional Democratic “blue wall” that he demolished.

There have been some signs that Trump’s popularity has slipped in Pennsylvania overall. A Marist poll in August gave Trump an approval rating of just 38 percent in the state, with 52 percent disapproval.

But going against Trump in this broadly conservative district on Pennsylvania’s western edges is a different matter. Trump carried even Erie County, the district's most Democratic area, by a slim margin in 2016. The county had been won by former President Obama by 20 points in 2008 and 17 points in 2012.

That could explain why DiNicola is keeping himself about as far from the fierce anti-Trump rhetoric of some national Democrats as it is possible to get.

At the one debate between the two candidates, on Oct. 8, Kelly semi-sarcastically offered to introduce DiNicola to Trump at the Erie rally.

“I met him before, I’d be happy to meet him again,” DiNicola responded.

The Democrat has stated that he would not back Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Democrats expected to unveil articles of impeachment Tuesday Impeachment witness to meet with Senate GOP Tuesday Press: Pelosi strikes back, hatred is a sin MORE (D-Calif.) as Speaker if he is elected and his party wins back the House.

DiNicola’s campaign manager, Tony Coppola, met The Hill at a Tim Hortons in Erie the day after the Trump rally and emphasized his candidate’s independence.

“I don’t know what impact [the Trump rally] is going to have,” he said. “Ron’s not running against President Trump. There are things Ron agrees with him on, like trade, like stopping unfair trade deals; there are things he doesn’t agree with him on, like taking [protections for] pre-existing conditions away on health care. He is going to focus solely on what is best for Western Pennsylvania.”

Coppola acknowledged the economy has been improving overall but noted that there are plenty in the city, and in the broader district, still struggling.

“People just don’t know how they are going to get ahead and it is not helpful every day when they are hearing about this ‘booming economy’ — we hear this all the time — and they don’t feel it is affecting them,” he said.

There are, to be sure, local issues that will influence the outcome in the 16th District.

The Democratic challenger accuses Kelly of serving special interests — and his own, via a tax break that he says benefits car dealers. Speaking with The Hill, Kelly called DiNicola “a real slick-talking lawyer,” and emphasized the time the Democrat spent as a partner in a California firm.

But the race will also inevitably be affected by national tides.

Overall, "I still think it's a pretty solid Republican district,” said Terry Madonna of Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College. “But look at Trump: He's going to Erie for Kelly and [Senate candidate Lou] Barletta.

"It also says the Republicans are a bit concerned. It's all about the size of the wave. If it is a solid blue one, DiNicola could win but it's going to take a pretty big blue wave for that to occur,” Madonna added.

That may be. And DiNicola’s campaign acknowledged the district has an in-built Republican tilt.

But they feel they are in with a genuine shot. And Kelly, for all his exuberance, doesn’t sound entirely sure that they’re wrong.

“I wonder sometimes, maybe it is the season that we’re in,” he said, more quietly than usual. "People are just upset. They don’t know why.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.