Chad Kluko needs to hope that the current national swell of support for Democrats turns into a tidal wave by Election Day.
Kluko, a businessman raised in Monroeville but only recently returned to the area, is the Democratic nominee trying to unseat two-term Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican. He is counting on one set of numbers to let him win: the 70,000 advantage in voter registration enjoyed by Democrats over Republicans in this district that includes parts of Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland counties, from Upper Saint Clair and Mount Lebanon to Greensburg and Ligonier.
"This district has the largest Democratic advantage of any district in Pennsylvania currently held by a Republican," Kluko notes.
But another pair of numbers may portend a Kluko loss. This race features what may be the largest fund-raising gap between two major party candidates in the state: $1,479,544 for Murphy, as of Sept. 30, vs. $86,444 for Kluko.
Murphy's campaign office did not respond to several requests for an interview and campaign photograph. The latter, in a pinch, might just as realistically be replaced by a snapshot of a large pile of money.
They've got issues in the 18th District too, of course. Kluko would pass a universal health-care bill, while Murphy, according to his campaign Web site, believes that "Instead of concentrating on 'who' pays for medical services, Congress should pay closer attention to 'what' is being paying [sic] for."
A check of the AARP candidate ratings finds Kluko in complete agreement with the issues of this top senior-citizen advocacy group, whereas Murphy chose to check neither yes nor no on the group's questionnaire answers (opting to answer in prose).
But for Kluko, there is really only one defining issue for the voters in his district: "This is really a year when they need to decide -- is Tim Murphy part of the Republican leadership that isn't working for us?" he asks. He hopes that question will "get the drop-off Democrats out to the polls."
"We see the Democrats energized and the Republicans lethargic," he says, pointing to statewide campaigning among the Dems, unseen in 2002. "And that's all we need to win the election."
Well, that and several million dollars.
"This may be a race where money doesn't matter, where Democrats ... may just stick with their party all the way through the ballot," says Rep. Mike Doyle. Doyle has been the unofficial candidate recruiter for local Dems and has been involved with Kluko's race since the beginning.
He compares 2006 to 1994, when an unexpected number of Democratic incumbents woke up jobless the morning after Election Day. If this year is a mirror image, "the 18th district could be one of those districts" where Republicans are surprised, he says. "All the ingredients for the perfect storm are here. It just depends on how big a wave it is."
Still, Doyle allows, "money is the way you communicate, unfortunately," via commercial and pamphlet. "[Voters] don't have a heck of a lot of time to do the research on their own. ... Chad has struggled with raising money," and it's tough to create the impulse to pick Kluko's name on the ballot "when you don't have any name ID in the district.
"Part of the struggle he's had is because his roots aren't deep here, he's been away," says Doyle. (After graduating from Gateway High School, Kluko worked on the West Coast for two decades before returning a few years ago to care for his ailing father.) "Getting someone to write you a $500 or $1,000 check is tough in this town."
And, Doyle adds, "Money begets money. Chad's problem was he could never get that initial influx of money into his [campaign financial] report so people would notice it. ... It hasn't been from any lack of effort on his part."
A number of well-known figures had once considered vying for the Democratic nomination, including sportscaster Stan Savran, state Sen. Sean Logan, and former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer. All demurred.
"If they would have known what the political climate would have been ..." says Kluko.
"They're probably kicking themselves right now," says Doyle.
Still, the Dems are keeping hope alive in the 18th District -- for 2008.
"I don't think the political dynamics will change" from now to then, says Doyle. "People will still be Bush-weary. It's going to be an attractive seat next time, too."