Is PA's 3rd Congressional District Stuck in the Red?

Sep 26, 2014

Pennsylvania's 3rd Congressional district race features a Republican incumbent campaigning against a Democratic political newcomer.

Mike Kelly (R- PA 3) is seeking his 3rd term and seems poised to win again in November.

Kelly aligns with his conservative Republican colleagues in the house. He is pro-life and a strong supporter of gun rights, and he also pledges to limit the size of the federal government. He even found himself on a Fox News segment lambasting President Obama’s executive actions -- quite an opportunity for a conservative legislator.

Kelly’s Democratic challenger Dan LaVallee, 26, is a youthful graduate of Carnegie Mellon University who is currently working in the health care industry. He went into the Democratic primary unopposed after his two challengers dropped out of the race before election day.

The 3rd district is one of two districts that cover the northwestern portion of the state, and includes Crawford, Mercer, Butler and Armstrong counties, as well as parts of Erie and Lawrence counties and a small sliver of Clarion county. It is generally viewed as a Republican stronghold, sporting a Cook Political voting Index of R+8.

Though the seat has a history as a swing district, the voter makeup of Pennsylvania’s 3rd Congressional District was drastically changed after 2012 redistricting, essentially pushing the district’s “power base South,” said Kathy Dahlkemper, the former representative from the 3rd district from 2009 to 2011.

“The district, in my opinion, has become much more centered towards Pittsburgh than the Northwest,” she said.

Redistricting severed parts of Erie County, a Democratic stronghold, from the 3rd district. The parts lost were then absorbed by the PA’s 5th Congressional district.  

“I think it would be very difficult for anyone from the Northwest -- Erie County or Crawford County -- to win the seat,” Dahlkemper, who is currently an Erie County Commissioner, said.

Phil English, the 3rd district’s representative from 2003 to 2009, agrees with Dahlkemper’s assessment. There is now for more political clout in the southern part of the district, he said, with “communities like Cranberry, counties like Armstrong, counties like Lawrence” “playing a much bigger role in how this district bounces.”

Both Lavallee and Kelly are from Butler County.

This is a drastic change from years past. Even the 3rd district’s predecessor, Pennsylvania’s 21st congressional district, was dominated by Erie residents including former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, who served in congress from 1983 to 1994, and Phil English.

However, even with redistricting, Dahlkemper does not see PA-3 as becoming a Republican-dominated seat.

“The Democrats have a bit of an advantage in registration,” she said. “A big part” of this race is “the Lavallee campaign has to make sure to drive out those voters.”

The numbers back up Dahlkemper’s claims. According to the most recent voter registration statistics, the counties within PA-3’s borders, when taken together, have a Democratic majority voter base. The totals are close though, with the Democrats leading Republicans by fewer than 17,000 voters. In addition, the Democrats have a majority in Erie, Mercer, and Lawrence Counties.

It should be said that in any off-year election, voter apathy tends to be high, and historically, Republican voters are far more likely to show up at the polls than their Democratic counterparts.

However, there seems to be room for Democratic optimism in the 3rd district, if not for this election then in the future.

But to do so, the Democratic party has to appeal to what English described as a diverse voter base that includes “blue collar and rural voters.” These voters “ultimately are responding to a whole range of interests in the economy,” he said.