Pennsylvania Democrat shadowed by healthcare vote

CONNEAUT LAKE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - In an election year dominated by the debate over jobs and the economy, Representative Kathy Dahlkemper has found it hard to escape the shadow of her March vote for a sweeping healthcare overhaul.

The endangered first-term Pennsylvania Democrat, a Catholic abortion rights opponent, has been bombarded by attack ads from anti-abortion groups and hammered by Republican critics for her role in helping to pass the healthcare reform law.

While the ailing economy has pushed healthcare to the back burner in many races, Dahlkemper is one of about a dozen Democrats around the country under heavy attack for backing an 11th-hour compromise on abortion funding that ensured the bill’s passage.

Anti-abortion groups like Americans United for Life and the Susan B. Anthony list have sponsored ads blasting Dahlkemper for the deal, which required President Barack Obama to issue an executive order affirming the healthcare law did not change restrictions on federal funding of abortions.

“I find what they are doing to be morally reprehensible. There is nobody in Congress who has been a better friend for the unborn than me,” Dahlkemper, who trails Republican challenger Mike Kelly in polls, said of the ad campaigns.

“It’s a very interesting place that I’m in. As a woman and a pro-life Democrat, I’m a huge threat to the Republican Party, and that’s why I’m a target,” Dahlkemper said in an interview before marching in a local pumpkin festival parade.

Dahlkemper and some other members of the anti-abortion Democratic House group led by retiring Representative Bart Stupak -- dubbed the Stupak Sellouts on a Republican website -- are among the most endangered Democratic incumbents in the November 2 battle for control of Congress.

Republican wins in those races could be critical in helping them pick up the 39 Democratic seats they need for a House of Representatives majority that would slam the brakes on Obama’s agenda and give rise to a push to repeal the healthcare law.


Some of the ads flooding Dahlkemper’s northeastern Pennsylvania district accuse her of backing taxpayer-funded abortions in the overhaul. Dahlkemper asked area stations to pull the ads because she contends Obama’s executive order makes the charge inaccurate.

Grassroots anger over the law that Republicans point to as a symbol of heavy-handed government intrusiveness helped energize Republican and Tea Party activists, but the party’s calls for its repeal have been eclipsed as a campaign issue by the economy and the high unemployment rate.

In many campaigns, Republicans have folded healthcare into a broader attack on Democratic economic leadership, lumping it together with the economic stimulus package, industry bailouts and deficit spending.

“For most Republican candidates, healthcare is a secondary issue. It’s become another one of the things Democrats have done to mess up the economy,” said Bob Blendon, a health policy and political analyst at Harvard University.

Republican Kelly’s campaign literature listing his priorities ranks opposition to the “government takeover” of healthcare behind rising spending, debt and bailouts.

“People are upset with her because she told them one thing and did another thing on healthcare,” said Kelly, a car dealer who marched ahead of Dahlkemper in the recent parade in Conneaut Lake, a vacation resort area between Pittsburgh and Erie. “She caved into the pressure.”

On the campaign trail, Kelly said, he primarily hears about the overhaul from seniors worried about its impact.

In the parade, an annual event attended by thousands in Conneaut Lake, Dahlkemper marched alongside a Democratic pickup truck festooned with signs reading: “Thank President Obama and Democrats for Health Care 2010.”


Amy Farrell, a school custodian in nearby Tionesta who was watching the parade with her husband and children, said she backed Dahlkemper and her healthcare stance.

“I know she’s getting a lot of grief for it, but I support her all the way,” Farrell said. “There are a lot of young adults with no healthcare.”

Once fully in place in 2014, the overhaul would extend health coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans, expand the government health plan for the poor and bar insurance practices such as refusing to cover people with pre-existing conditions.

When the nearly yearlong legislative battle over healthcare concluded in March, Democrats predicted the legislation would become more popular as voters became more familiar with it.

That has not happened, as most polls show slight majorities opposing the healthcare law and approval stuck at about 40 percent. Most of the Democrats who tout their stance on the bill voted against it.

Individual elements remain popular, including some that went into effect last month like giving parents the ability to put children up to age 26 on their healthcare plans.

“We made a huge mistake as Democrats by not going out and selling the benefits of the healthcare bill,” Dahlkemper said. “I don’t know that it was a conscious decision, I think we just got preoccupied with governing.”

Dahlkemper’s district, which stretches along the Ohio border from the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh to the shores of Lake Erie, split almost evenly in 2008 between Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

The blue-collar district was represented for 14 years by a Republican, Phil English, until political neophyte Dahlkemper knocked him off in 2008. But the climate is much worse for Democrats here this time.

“Even the Democrats here are fairly conservative and Kathy reflects that very well,” said Christopher Seeley, a county Democratic Party official from nearby Linesville. “But now she’s being painted as a San Francisco Nancy Pelosi liberal, and that’s not a good thing around here.”

Editing by Jackie Frank