The first question Erin McClelland gets at the Ellwood City Oktoberfest is about guns ... and it comes from Dave Gallocher, a man who says he "usually has an arsenal on him."
Without missing a beat — and between beer tastings — McClelland offers her almost unequivocal support of gun rights. She says she strongly supports the Second Amendment and is in favor of "leaving people alone."
Gallocher nods in approval, but later says he probably couldn't be persuaded to vote for a Democrat: "I'm a get-off-your-ass-and-work kind of person."
Still, like Altmire and Critz, McClelland is trying to stake out conservative territory to win a district she describes as "blue-collar to the core." She criticizes Obama's efforts to curb emissions from coal plants and says she's not sure if she would have voted for the Affordable Care Act. She says she wants to "eradicate" abortion, but doesn't support a legal ban.
On other issues — like LGBT rights, taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent and raising the minimum wage — she's more progressive.
"She is pretty pro-business," says Tony May, a public-affairs consultant for Triad Strategies and former Democratic campaign consultant. "In a fairer race where she isn't at such a financial disadvantage, I think she'd be an excellent candidate."
Ask McClelland why she's running, and it's Rothfus' record — not those policy positions — that she talks about first.
She points to his votes against the Violence Against Women Act and re-opening the federal government during the shutdown. She hammers him hardest on his vote against relief for victims of Superstorm Sandy, a bill he voted against because, as he said at the time, "Congress should have worked to find a way to pay for this now."
"Nihilism and destruction from within: That's his policy agenda," McClelland says.
Green, the GOP strategist, offered a different characterization.
"I don't think Keith is a conservative-down-your-throat guy," he says, noting that historically, the district has elected conservative politicians.
Former Democratic campaign consultant May agrees that while Rothfus might be on the more conservative end of his party, "he's an intelligent guy and he's careful about the way he speaks out so he's not publicly offensive." That's in contrast with tea-partiers like Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, "who believes in birther issues and [the] feasibility of building a wall that will keep out any foreign-born people," May says.
And because Rothfus isn't more vocal on positions that might be on the fringes of public opinion, "the media doesn't call attention to his votes [even though] these tend to be issues that split the district," May adds. On his vote against ending the government shutdown, for instance, neither the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette nor Tribune-Review reported in the body of their stories that he voted "no."
"He hasn't talked much about his record at all," echoes David Martin, a financial consultant in attendance at the Rothfus event who lives in the 4th Congressional District, but whose business is based in the 12th. "We're hoping that people start to move to the middle."
But with $46,125 cash on hand at press time, McClelland doesn't have the money to build name recognition as a moderate Democrat or run TV ads about Rothfus' record (and none of Rothfus' ads to date mention McClelland).
"We have a lot of fundraising challenges, and they're challenges that any first-time female candidate would have," says McClelland campaign manager Marios Kritiotis. "We'd love to get on TV, but we need to be realistic with what we have."
But even though observers like Kondik aren't expecting a close race, he says the district shouldn't be written off down the road — especially once Obama's unpopularity isn't a factor.
"You'd have to be delusional to think race doesn't have to do with it, especially with a black president in the White House," he says. "The Clinton brand is certainly better in Appalachia than the Obama brand. I think it could be competitive in the future."