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For GOP House freshman Mike Kelly, Washington is a tough sell

Fighting back

Rep.-elect Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), a car dealer turned congressman, has come to Washington to change its ways. But first, at an orientation session, he had to be schooled in them.

Kelly first got the itch to run for Congress in 2009, after the federal government took over General Motors. Kelly Motors has been in his family since his father started the business in 1953. In spring 2009, Kelly said, GM managers reviewed his Chevrolet-and-Cadillac dealership and concluded it was "perfect."

"Then they went to Washington and they got fired," Kelly said.

Under the government restructuring, he could sell Chevrolets but not Cadillacs.

"Wait, wait, wait!" Kelly said he told a GM representative. "This is America. You can't come in and take my business away from me. . . . Every penny we have is wrapped up in here. I've got 110 people that rely on me every two weeks to be paid. . . . And you call me up and in five minutes try to wipe out 56 years of a business?"

" 'This is a new General Motors,' " Kelly recalled the man telling him. " 'That's just the way it is.' "

Kelly went to arbitration and eventually won. And despite a light political resume - four years as a part-time City Council member - he also decided to challenge incumbent Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D).

Kelly ran on a platform of cutting spending and stopping government intrusion in small business. He raised $1.3 million, including about $400,000 of his own money, to survive a six-person Republican primary.

Pennsylvania's 3rd Congressional District is closely divided; in 2008, John McCain beat Barack Obama there by just 17 votes. But Kelly trounced Dahlkemper, 56 percent to 44 percent.

"There's a lot we don't know about this guy," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "The voters don't have a clear sense about who he is. It was more of a reaction about her."

To win reelection, he said, Kelly will have to appeal not just to the Erie-based district's tea party base but also to its Reagan Democrats.

"This seat has historically been held by a moderate Republican," said Daniel Shea, a political scientist at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., who moderated a debate between Kelly and Dahlkemper. "And what was interesting about Mike Kelly's race is I could not detect a moderate bone in his body."

Kelly said he wants to differentiate himself from his party's leadership, but when asked he could not specify an issue on which he would diverge. Democrats are eager to make this a negative. Bill Cole, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, described Kelly as an empty suit who will "regurgitate and rubber-stamp" the Republican agenda.


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