ERIE, Pa. — The outcome for the race for county commissioner in this northwestern Pennsylvania corner didn’t get much national scrutiny or post-election analysis because the incumbent Democrat, Kathy Dahlkemper, ultimately won.
But it should have. Why? Because it is worthy of at least diving into what is happening to this once reliable stronghold for Democratic candidates; it may not be red, but it sure is a vibrant shade of purple.
Dahlkemper's narrow victory – she won by 300 votes – is something both parties should dive into to discover where the voter’s sentiments are heading.
Dahlkemper went into the race with all of the built-in advantages needed for a comfortable win: incumbency and a two-to-one Democratic registration advantage over Republicans.
But she also went into the race with some emerging issues that moderate Democrats face in working-class regions: pro-gun, pro-life voters in counties across the Great Lakes Rust Belt who turned out to vote for Barack Obama twice and then later voted Donald J. Trump.
Again, Dahlkemper won, but barely.
Across the board, Democrats had a great election night two weeks ago – but the outcome in Erie County shows there are some real warning signs in the Rust Belt that the party has a lot more work to do.
Dahlkemper is a good fit for her county. She is a daughter of Erie, not a career politician, and moderate in her stances. So why was her win so slender? Is it because of her? Or is the cause more the erosion of her party’s brand in Erie?
Dahlkemper’s is a primary example of what Democrats should be concerned about going forward for the 2018 midterms; there are almost 30,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans here in this county; with Democrats at 96,710, Republicans at 67,487, and “Other” (independents, Green, etc.) at 24,244.
In 2013 when she first ran for local office, after losing her congressional seat in the wave election cycle of 2010, she garnered almost 57 percent of the vote and won by near 8,000 votes. Two weeks ago her support cratered to 50 percent, and a 300-vote win over Republican Art Oligeri.
Dahlkemper entered public service as a pro-life moderate Democrat when she ran for Congress in 2008 – she lasted one term – she was defeated by Republican businessman Mike Kelly by 11.4 percent. Many voters believe her loss was largely based on her decision to cast her crucial vote in favor of Obamacare in 2010.
And while she still won Erie County in that large loss, many saw that vote as placing her image as a practicing Catholic in jeopardy with voters who viewed the power the Department of Health and Human Services had to require all private insurers, including Catholic charities and hospitals, to provide coverage for things that did not line up with the Church’s positions on life and reproductive issues.
And many of those same voters who turned against her may not have been Catholic, practicing or not — they saw her giving up a value they associated with her for her party, rather than voting for her district.
Democrats need the Kathy Dahlkempers of their party to win all kinds of races up and down the ballot. They represent an opportunity to bring in moderate voters who are looking for someone to sympathize with their economic and cultural concerns without the worry they will sell them out once they get to Washington.
Trump won Erie County in 2016 by just under 2,000 votes – a first for a Republican since 1984. While it was a hint that Democrats have an image problem here, it was state Senator Dan Laughlin’s shocking 7 point win over an incumbent Democrat here that should really give them pause.
The race was about his rival's support for tax increases and accepting perks for state legislators – just the kind of fiscal prudence and drain-the-swamp messaging that attracted Democrats to vote for Trump.
Dahlkemper entered the county commissioner race with nearly an 18 point lead, but won by less than one point. It is what happened between those two numbers Democrats need to dig in and understand if they want to win back the House next year. Because if their support down ballot in places like Erie County show that type of erosion, their chances are weakening despite the results that came out of Virginia.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.