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Change, of a Sort

How an upstart Republican candidate in Scranton is trying to hitch a ride on Obama's coattails.

DUNMORE, PENNSYLVANIA--With just two weeks left until the election, Democratic Representative Paul Kanjorski is in the back room of Ragnacci’s, a cozy sports bar just outside of Scranton, doing his best to fire up a crowd of mostly elderly voters. “Obama’s going to win big in northeastern Pennsylvania,” the 71-year-old lawmaker declares. “And I’m going to win”--here he pauses--“reasonably big in northeastern Pennsylvania!”

It was not the gentleman from Nanticoke’s most inspired rhetoric. Across the country, Democratic House members and their would-be colleagues are basking in the glow of Obama-mania and Bush-phobia, enjoying trickle-down enthusiasm that they’re hoping will result in gains comparable to their 31-seat pick-up in 2006. And it’s reasonable to assume that the Democratic triumph would extend to Pennsylvania’s 11th district, given that it’s anchored by Scranton--the blue-collar city that’s been invoked with such frequency by Democrats this year. But Kanjorski was wise to insert a qualifier. Despite an impressive war chest of over $2 million, supplemented with cash from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the congressman is trailing his underfunded opponent, Lou Barletta, in independent polls by as many as nine points. CQ Politics has given him the inauspicious distinction of being “the only non-freshman Democrat facing a serious challenge” this year. Against his opponent, a folk hero among the “secure our borders” crowd, the narratives of the national election are playing out on a small scale--but in reverse: The Republican challenger is running as the change candidate, and the 24-year career congressman is struggling to define himself against this season’s most popular political narrative.

On the crest of a hill on I-81, a highway that leads north from Harrisburg to Hazleton, a billboard quotes from Leviticus 19:34: “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you.” Such a sign might seem out of place in a state where Latino immigrants make up an estimated 180,000 of the state’s 12 million residents. But, in recent years, as transplants from New York began to spill over into nearby Hazleton, the city of about 25,000 began to look radically different--to the chagrin of some of its lifelong residents. In 2006, Mayor Barletta saw a chance to crack down. After an unsolved murder the mayor claims was committed by illegal immigrants, Barletta signed into law ordinances that, if they had passed legal scrutiny, would have imposed some of the nation’s strictest punishments on landlords and businesses dealing with undocumented immigrants. The ACLU presented a legal challenge, and, during the course of the proceedings, Barletta appeared repeatedly in the national press to tell how the murder of the Hazletonian (“shot between the eyes,” he told them again and again) was the last straw. The tough-talking, “illegal-is-illegal” mayor emerged as a local celebrity: a pioneering small-town defender frustrated by the federal government’s failure to take on immigration reform.

Last year, Barletta was reelected with 94 percent of the vote, a mandate typically afforded only to election thieves and autocrats. Minority Leader John Boehner (one of several high-profile Republicans to recruit him, according to a state party official) has promised him a seat on the Transportation Committee—not a bad appointment, for a district laced with so many highways. American Conservative branded him “America’s Mayor.”

He still has his enemies, of course: Barletta recently told a reporter that he sleeps with a loaded gun. And, not surprisingly, Barletta’s rise has attracted some less than desirable supporters (earlier this year, he rebuffed David Duke’s support). Amilcar Arroyo, a naturalized citizen who is the editor of a local Spanish-language newspaper, told me he doesn’t think the mayor is personally racist. But Arroyo’s interaction with a rapacious, angry mob at a pro-Barletta rally shows what can happen when a candidate demagogues the issue: Arroyo was encircled by Barletta supporters, who screamed “traitor” at him over chants of “USA! USA!” before the police stepped in to remove him from danger. Bob McDonald, the owner of a newsstand in Nanticoke and the town’s former chamber of commerce president who met with Barletta earlier in the year, described the mayor’s style this way: “He’s either a bigot or a political opportunist. And neither one of those is very appealing.”

Barletta has made himself out to be the post-partisan Obama to Kanjorski’s Washington-insider McCain, escaping the negative associations endemic to most of his party’s hopefuls this year. At The Banshee, an Irish pub in downtown Scranton, I met Dan Cheek, a bright college conservative who founded the website to counteract what he thought was a dearth of scrutiny toward the mayor in local media. “It’s like he’s established a brand name,” Cheek told me. “It’s not Democrat or Republican. It’s Lou.” You can see this post-partisan maneuvering on every level of Barletta’s campaign. In his first ad, he declares, “America wants change, and change is on the way!” Advocates call him “fresh” and tout him as someone “not afraid to reach across the aisle.” He’s won the support of 23 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Independents, according to a poll taken earlier this month. Residents tell me that it’s not unheard of to see the mayor’s now ubiquitous “LOU” signs sharing yard space with Obama’s.

Barletta found an easy target in Kanjorski, the second-ranking member on the House Financial Services Committee. For a long time, his greatest strength was his ability to bring pork to his struggling district. But, a few years ago, that strength became a weakness. When details emerged about the $9.25 million in federally appropriated funds that Kanjorski funneled into a failed coal-power technology company run by his family, it diminished the reputation of the man who has been called “a master of earmarking.” “It was just like the Three Stooges meet anthracite,” a Penn State professor told the local press. Kanjorski was also responsible for the Kanjorski Center, a 24,000 square foot office building constructed in part with federal funds that has sat empty for the last three years, making it an easy target for Republican derision.

Over hotcakes and cheesy scrambled eggs at Chick’s Diner in Scranton, attorney and longtime Democratic activist Mike Cefalo suggested that some of Kanjorski’s most pressing troubles were stylistic. “Kanjorski has not been the best communicator. He doesn’t come back to the district a lot, he doesn’t speak well,” Cefalo said, no doubt referencing, in part, the mini-scandal caused by Kanjorski’s admission that Democrats had “stretched the facts” on their promise to end the war in Iraq. Cheek agreed with Cefalo’s assessment of the representative, saying he seemed “old” and “out of touch.” “He’s almost like the McCain of this race,” Cheek said.

Other Republican candidates have banked on Congress’s failure to address immigration this cycle. Consider North Carolina’s Carl Mumpower, who suspended his campaign in defiance of his own party’s immigration policies, or Buddy Witherspoon, who mounted a primary challenge against South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham for being lax on immigration. But, by combining the post-partisan promises of Obama and the red-meat, populist appeals of Sarah Palin, Barletta seems to be the most successful--even if it remains unclear what, exactly, he’ll stand for in the House of Representatives. “He’s not exactly running the most issue-based campaign,” smirked one observer of Scranton politics.

Whether or not it will be enough to get Barletta into office remains to be seen. Kanjorski still has the benefits that accompany incumbency, including a two-to-one spending advantage. And then there’s the political climate, which is downright poisonous for Republicans, no matter how “maverick-y” they seem. The most recent poll shows Kanjorski down by five points, a margin that’s surmountable given the still-large number of undecided voters and the 474,000 new Democrats who have swelled the state party’s ranks this year. “Obama is going to do well,” Kanjorski told a county commissioner at Ragnacci’s. “And, hopefully, we’ll just follow him on up.”

It’s not an unreasonable wish for the beleaguered Democrat to make. But, in an election year when so many voters are calling for change, it seems that the candidate most likely to ride on Obama’s coattails in this race is Kanjorski’s race-baiting opponent.

Marin Cogan is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.