Ron DiNicola is running as a Democrat in a western Pennsylvania Congressional District that went for Donald Trump by roughly 20 points two years ago, which means if he’s going to win, he has to punch above his weight.
That might help explain why, on a Sunday afternoon in September, he found himself speaking to a crowd of two-dozen community members in a boxing gym strategically located between a steelworks and a church in Farrell, Pa.
“Washington is broken,” he said. “Send in the Marines.”
It won’t be as simple as that, of course. He’s not just taking on Republican incumbent Mike Kelly, of Butler. He’s also going up against one of the great counterpunchers in modern politics: Donald Trump.
Trump stumped for Kelly at an Erie rally earlier this month.
“Mike is strong on crime, tough as hell on borders, powerful on trade, and he is really great on jobs,” Trump said to a fired-up crowd. He also told a story about Kelly’s efforts to secure federal aid for dredging channels in Lake Erie, and replenishing sand on the beaches of tourist draw Presque Isle.
“I said, ‘Mike, what the hell is Presque Isle?’” Trump said to the crowd’s amusement before adding, “He wants sand, and we’re gonna get him the sand, OK?”
The 16th District stretches from Erie County down to Butler, and it joins industrial small-towns and rural areas with the city of Erie. Trump’s performance in this part of the state played a key role in his surprising 2016 win in Pennsylvania. He managed to carry Erie County -- a longtime Democratic bastion that Barack Obama won by 19,000 votes -- with a nearly 2,000-vote margin.
The district became more Democrat-friendly after the state Supreme Court redrew it this year. Andrew Bloeser, a professor of political science at Allegheny College in Meadville, said that made the race far more competitive. Trump’s selection of Erie pointed up Republican concerns about Kelly’s prospects.
“It's a sign of how competitive this race is that of all the places that Donald Trump could have been … he came to Pennsylvania’s 16th district to support Mike Kelly,” Bloeser said.
Kelly, of Butler, is a car dealer. He was first elected in 2010 and was one of Trump’s earliest supporters. Asked if his race is a referendum on Trump, he was happy to answer.
"Oh my gosh, yeah. Yes, of course,” he said. “He is making America great again. In 21 months he has changed the entire trajectory of our economy."
Northwest Pennsylvania has seen economic gains in recent years, along with the nation as a whole. And Kelly cited his support of those tax cuts, and of a broader deregulatory agenda, as a primary reason for re-electing him.
Kelly acknowledged that that some Trump policies are having mixed results. Steel processor NLMK warned that new tariffs on steel imports might force it to cut over 700 jobs at its plant in Farrell. Kelly said he’s seeking a waiver on the tariffs for NLMK, a process he said is being dragged out because the federal Commerce Department, which handles waiver requests, is understaffed.
But he also told the story of a New Castle manufacturer who said the tariffs on his own business were a necessary short-term pain.
“[The owner] looked me in the eye and says, ‘Donald Trump wasn’t here 39 years ago. He is trying to do overnight what prior politicians have allowed to take place in the last 40-some years.’ And I thought, that just makes sense.”
As for DiNicola?
"He's kind of got that Rodney King thing: ‘Can't we all just get along,’ and ‘I can work with President Trump,'" Kelly said. "My gosh, you've already have someone who works with President Trump. You don't need to worry about that my friend.”
DiNicola is a lawyer who has represented Muhammad Ali and practiced criminal law in California. He's also been active in his hometown of Erie. He touts his community work there, which includes securing federal aid for workers who lost their jobs to foreign competition. (Kelly’s reference to Rodney King, whose beating triggered riots in 1992, was not idle: DiNicola served on a commission to study race relations in the aftermath of the riots.)
DiNicola played down questions about Trump, showing little interest in investigating the president in the case of a Democratic takeover of the House. But he faulted Kelly for supporting the Trump-backed tax cuts of 2017.
“He voted for a tax bill that benefits primarily the wealthy and doesn't do enough for middle class and working class voters of western Pennsylvania," said DiNicola, echoing a common Democratic complaint. "So he's got his own accounting to do."
He described the race against Kelly with a boxing metaphor. “The nice thing about Mike Kelly is, he comes right in at you. You don’t have to go looking for him.”
Indeed, the race has been bitter. That was true at a bruising Oct. 8 debate, where DiNicola blasted Kelly’s environmental record and his votes to rescind the Affordable Care Act, popularly referred to as Obamacare.
"We need to bring down the profiteering of the insurance companies,” he said at one point. Instead, he said, Republicans like Kelly were “voting to marginalize, and eliminate coverage for pre-existing conditions."
“We have always kept pre-existing conditions in there,” Kelly shot back. “And Ron I'm going to watch your nose. If you keep talking this way, that nose is going the whole way out the back of this [room] -- if you could just stick to the truth, it'll make a big difference.”
On the debate stage and elsewhere, Kelly has blasted DiNicola for representing criminals, including Ruben Zuno Arce, who was convicted of involvement in the 1985 kidnapping and death of a DEA agent. DiNicola has countered that accused criminals are entitled to a defense.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has targeted the district as a possible pick-up, has aired ads accusing Kelly of enriching himself while in office, in part by favoring a bill that preserved tax breaks for car dealers even as the 2017 tax bill reduced them for others. Fact checkers cast doubt on those claims, noting that financial disclosure forms showed Kelly’s wealth eroding during his time in office. And while Kelly did vote in favor of reforms that included the carve-out, there’s no evidence he had a role in crafting it.
Kelly himself has run afoul of fact checkers, including with his claim that DiNicola had committed a “four-Pinocchio” falsehood with his statements on pre-existing conditions. Independent experts warned that Republican efforts to overhaul the Affordable Care Act would have weakened rules to prevent insurers from hiking premiums on people with pre-existing conditions.
Polls show Kelly leading in polls by the mid-to-high single digits. But DiNicola has been a robust campaign fundraiser, and Bloeser, the political science professor, said the Democrat still has a chance. The key, Bloeser said, would be for DiNicola to run up the vote in the city of Erie and its environs, while being competitive with Kelly in Crawford County next door, where Meadville, the county seat, leans Democratic. That could offset Kelly’s advantages in areas like Butler and Mercer counties.
“Mike Kelly has some advantages that come with being an incumbent in a district that tends to lean Republican,” Bloeser said. “It's his race to lose right now, but by a very slight margin.”