Voter trends, labor support enabled Critz to oust Altmire


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U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire has never missed a vote since joining Congress in 2007, and on Tuesday the Democrat kept the streak alive, traveling from his home in McCandless to the U.S. Capitol, casting votes and then making a slew of phone calls. One of them was to fellow incumbent Mark Critz to concede the 12th District primary, after his challenger rode a huge turnout in Cambria and Somerset counties to victory.

In a few months, the streak of votes will be over. Mr. Critz, D-Johnstown, or Republican candidate Keith Rothfus of Edgeworth will be making them instead.

"I've not given any thought to what happens after" he leaves Congress, Mr. Altmire, the former UPMC lobbyist, said Wednesday. "I'm going to keep doing my job and working in the community."

Through his three terms in office, Mr. Altmire stressed putting the wishes of his home district ahead of leading voices in his party. In Tuesday's vote, Mr. Critz received assists from both, feasting on voter turnout around his Johnstown base and getting organizational help from organized labor, a key Democratic bloc that had soured on his opponent.

It also took luck, since the redistricted seat Republicans designed gave so many advantages to Mr. Altmire.

"When this map was drawn, I was despondent," Mr. Critz said at his election night party. "I thought, 'There's no way I can win this. There's no way. The geography is so stacked against me.' "

About two-thirds of the new district had Democratic voters from Mr. Altmire's old seat, and he was so suited to it that he lobbied state legislators in December to approve the new boundaries. With a regular turnout in Allegheny and Beaver counties Tuesday, he would have sailed to a primary win, especially since Mr. Critz's base in Cambria and Somerset accounted for only a quarter of its Democratic voters.

Mapmakers "handed the seat to Jason Altmire. It was a real mountain to climb. The worst I've ever seen," said Tim Waters, the political director for the United Steelworkers Union.

Critz campaign polling showed him immensely popular around Johnstown, so its workers started phone calling and door knocking unusually early there to drum up anticipation for the vote. The United Steelworkers and other unions did the same -- while targeting segments of the labor vote elsewhere -- leading up to an effort Monday and Tuesday in which the Steelworkers made 35,000 calls reminding Critz partisans to hit the polls.

About 90 percent of the vote in Cambria and Somerset would go to Mr. Critz, to 70 percent for Mr. Altmire in Allegheny and Beaver counties. That still should have been enough for Mr. Altmire to win, except Democratic turnout in his counties was 20 percent and 25.5 percent, respectively.

In Cambria and Somerset, turnout was 34 percent and 27 percent, a relatively big margin in the two small counties that allowed Mr. Critz to win the primary battle by just 1,248 votes.

This fall, Mr. Critz and Mr. Rothfus will be fighting over politically conservative ground. Mr. Critz is pro-gun and anti-abortion and an opponent of Wall Street regulatory reform, funding for Planned Parenthood and repealing the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy on gays and lesbians. With that territory ceded, expect Republicans to attack him on votes favoring segments of the Affordable Care Act and other Obama administration priorities, though Mr. Critz was careful not to endorse President Barack Obama during the primary.

"Mark Critz's political career is on the ropes, and Keith Rothfus is poised to deliver the knockout blow," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Nat Sillin. "Critz emerges from the primary bruised, broke and saddled with the burden of having to run on his record of support for President Obama's big-government, tax-and-spend agenda."

Mr. Rothfus is familiar with much of the district because of his 2010 run against Mr. Altmire, which he lost by less than two percentage points, and is indefatigably learning the rest of it. He put 300 miles on his car Tuesday doing a loop from Sewickley to Cambria, Somerset, Westmoreland, Allegheny and Beaver counties.

Because of Mr. Critz's spending on the primary battle, Mr. Rothfus entered the general election season with more cash than his Democratic rival. Mr. Altmire was also a more proven fundraiser than Mr. Critz.

The Democrat should close that gap soon and contributions were already coming in Wednesday morning, Critz consultant Mike Mikus said. The primary was not especially nasty despite some squabbling over votes on Social Security and Medicare, and Mr. Critz's favorable ratings were good in the Allegheny and Beaver population centers, despite losing to Mr. Altmire there. Expect the campaign to try to paint Mr. Rothfus as an extremist, Tea Party-type Republican whose economic policies would endanger those same entitlements.

"There is a lot of room to grow and some outreach needs to be done, but Mark is in a very, very good position," Mr. Mikus said.

Still, if turnout in Allegheny County alone had been a handful of percentage points higher, it would be Mr. Altmire in the rematch with the Republican and his 6,400-vote streak might have had a chance to live on. Instead he said he'll work for Mr. Critz's re-election, though that role has not been set.

"One thing [the vote] definitely showed was in my district I still have some popularity," Mr. Altmire said, despite the labor attacks against him. "Nothing against Mark. He turned out his vote. In my constituency, I'm happy with the votes that were cast."

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at www.post-gazette.com/earlyreturns or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns. First Published April 26, 2012 2:00 PM


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