Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010

Pennsylvania's 11th Congressional District: Paul Kanjorski vs. Lou Barletta

In some ways, Representative Paul Kanjorski is this year's quintessential imperiled incumbent. During the latest session of Congress, the Democrat voted for health care reform and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), linchpins of the Obama Administration agenda that Republican foes are using to bludgeon the lawmakers who supported them (even though the latter bill was originally passed under President George W. Bush). These votes are a small part of Kanjorski's legislative record — he's represented Pennsylvania's 11th District since 1985 — but in this heated cycle, his lengthy résumé is part of the problem. In one recent ad, Kanjorski's opponent, Republican Lou Barletta, paints the Democrat as a relic. "Know a guy who wears out his welcome? Paul Kanjorski has just been around too long," says the narrator.

The two candidates are familiar foes. In 2002 Kanjorski easily dispatched Barletta, cruising to victory by 13 points. In 2008, when the pair faced off for a second time, the race was tighter; Barletta led for stages before Kanjorski rode Barack Obama's coattails to a four-point victory. This time the climate favors the GOP, and the party has identified this Democratic stronghold in northeastern Pennsylvania — which includes blue collar cities like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre — as prime takeaway territory. Election handicappers have either rated the district a toss-up or given the GOP an edge, and Barletta has a steady lead in early polling, though recent surveys show the race tightening. A Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader/Critical Insights poll in mid-October had Barletta up by just two points.

Hewing to a familiar campaign blueprint this cycle, Barletta, the 54-year-old mayor of Hazleton, Pa., built his lead by running against health care reform, government spending and the culture of congressional favor trading. A pro-life, pro-gun-rights Republican known as an opponent of illegal immigration, he argues that Kanjorski, 73, has outstayed his usefulness on Capitol Hill. "I believe there was a time when Paul Kanjorski was one of us," he told a Wilkes-Barre newspaper this month. "I think when you're there too long you become part of Washington. I don't want to go for a career. I want to go for a cause." If elected, Barletta pledges to serve no more than five terms.

Kanjorski may have a target on his back, but he won't go easily. A former lawyer who is one of the Hill's leading champions of credit unions, the Congressman — the second-ranked Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee — has outraised Barletta by almost a 2-to-1 margin. Kanjorski has also outspent Barletta 2.5 to 1, in part because he was forced to parry a primary challenge while Barletta ran unopposed. The Democrat questions Barletta's suitability for the job, noting that under his stewardship, Hazleton has suffered from soaring unemployment rates. "Times are tough for all, but the city is the worst-run in the state," a recent Kanjorski ad says. "Now he wants a promotion?" Kanjorski also suggests the Republican could slash Social Security benefits or privatize the system — a hot-button issue in a district with an aging population. (While Barletta formerly favored partial Social Security privatization, on the campaign trail he has pledged to protect the system in its current form.)

In a sign that the race has become a national bellwether, both candidates have hosted members of their national parties in the race's closing stages, with former New York governor George Pataki hitting the trail for Barletta and Vice President Joe Biden, a Scranton native, stumping for the incumbent. The Democrats are working hard to save a caucus stalwart, but the political tide is breaking against them. For Barletta, the third challenge could be the charm.