Salena Zito: Blue wave election? If it happens, it will start here

Keith Rothfus knows he’s in the fight of his political life.

It’s just past noon on Monday and the three-term Republican congressman is doing something he rarely does — sitting. Next door, a group of volunteers can be heard calling voters and running through questions and answers.

“Do you support President Trump’s agenda? Would you consider voting for Congressman Rothfus? Would you like a yard-sign? Yes, Congressman Rothfus is pro-life.”

His volunteers are trying to reach every voter in the newly created Western Pennsylvania 17th Congressional District. The seat moved Rothfus from a district that supported Trump by 20 points to a seat that supported him by just 2.

“I’ve been counted out before, lost before and came back before. It all comes down to earning new voters’ support,” says Rothfus, as he grabs a handful of M&M’s from an oversized bag.

Democrat Rep. Conor Lamb is beating Rothfus by double digits, according to a Monmouth University survey. The GOP has pulled its ad support from Rothfus’ race.

Democratic challengers like Lamb who have little to no record or baggage — such as voting against guns in a swing district that likes guns — are being rewarded in this current political atmosphere.

After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the state’s political map this spring, Rothfus, like several other Republican congresspeople in the state, drew the short straw. He inherited a new district that encompasses a solid mix of suburbs, Democratic-packed river towns and just enough rural voters to make it a wee bit Republican, but not enough to comprise the new populist coalition that put Trump in the White House. If you’re looking for the swing district in America, this is it: the spot where the “blue wave” could take off for the Democrats.

What’s more, Rothfus is facing a rival whose good looks and résumé would have the Hallmark Channel rushing to cast him as the lead in a movie about the blue-collar kid made good. Having served just months in office after a special election in March, “Conor Lamb is Western Pennsylvania,” said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic public-affairs consultant in the state.

“Lamb is the embodiment of that area, he served his country as a Marine, he was a federal prosecutor going after the bad guys, he goes to church on Sunday, he is every mother’s dream of what you want your kid to grow up to be,” added Ceisler. “He really checks off all of the boxes.”

Democratic challengers like Lamb who have little to no record or baggage — such as voting against guns in a swing district that likes guns — are also being rewarded in this current political atmosphere.

Even the few Trump voters in Rothfus’ district will be hard for him to capture. The Republicans are struggling to get the president’s populist coalition to vote for GOP House members, as a large portion of them dislike both parties and refuse to align under one platform.

Ceisler says that if Rothfus loses to Lamb it’s not because he was a bad member of Congress. On the contrary, he says Rothfus voted exactly the way his constituents wanted him to. “It’s not like Rothfus did anything wrong. It is just that Conor is a juggernaut running in a favorable year for Democrats.”

At 56, Rothfus looks a dozen years younger. A cancer survivor and a devout Catholic who is also the father of six, he is often underestimated because of his calm and deliberate persona.

In 2012, when Rothfus beat the incumbent candidate to win his first House seat, reporters dubbed him the “energizer bunny” because of his relentless pursuit of every vote. Six years later the energizer bunny is still going despite the odds, despite the climate, despite the probable wave.

“Oh, it is nonstop, every day. Get up early, run all day. It’s a privilege to do what we do and listen to the hopes and fears of so many people of where this country can be and where they hope it will be,” Rothfus said.

Rothfus isn’t afraid to take a stand. He talks passionately about fixing health care, making sure that Social Security and Medicare are there for the future and creating an atmosphere that continues both job and wage growth, and his explanations are long, detailed and well thought out.

Lamb is less detailed. He doesn’t have to be when his party is expecting a wave, says Ceisler.

“He just needs to run safe.” (As of press time, the Lamb campaign did not respond to an interview request.)

Despite being a faithful team player for Republicans, Rothfus has been rewarded with abandonment — but he remains undeterred. “When people start to learn the differences, once people get to know who will be for more jobs and higher wages versus more government and higher taxes, and who’s going to . . . keep the economy growing again, and who has a record of protecting Social Security and Medicare, which I do, they’ll consider my record,” Rothfus says.

And he is off to the next event, determined to chase the windmills all the way to Election Day.

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