WASHINGTON -- When Keith Rothfus hits the campaign trail, the bespectacled Republican attorney from Edgeworth spends a lot of time talking about 2006.
That was the year when a political upstart overcame a big fundraising disadvantage to unseat Pennsylvania's 4th Congressional District incumbent, who was tied to an unpopular president during a wave year for the opposition party. And Mr. Rothfus is looking to replicate Rep. Jason Altmire's path in what is looking like a similar electoral tide -- though this time, it's the GOP advancing on the Democrats.
"One of the big issues people were confronting [in 2006] was the issue of broken government and frustration when you're looking at spending going through the roof, stalled progress in Iraq," said Mr. Rothfus, a 48-year-old father of six.
"People wanted good government. They didn't want broken government, and they certainly didn't want big government. And the Democrats have not delivered on that. Government just got bigger, and it's still broken."
Mr. Altmire, who unseated Melissa Hart in 2006 and went on to beat her in a rematch two years ago, is inclined to agree with the shortcomings of the Democratic Congress, and his message often can be boiled down to: Don't blame me.
His ads declare that he is not beholden to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama. He proved it, he said, by voting against some of their biggest priorities -- health care reform and a comprehensive climate bill, to name two.
Mr. Rothfus' assertion that Mr. Altmire votes the party line nearly 90 percent of the time is technically true, but because the House casts votes on so many noncontroversial issues -- naming post offices, congratulating championship sports teams and the like -- that number is misleading, Mr. Altmire says. He is consistently ranked near the bottom of the Democratic caucus in party loyalty.
"He's trying to tie me in with an unpopular leader, which we certainly talked about in 2006," Mr. Altmire, 42, of McCandless, said.
"The difference is my voting record is very different from [Ms. Hart's] voting record ... Rothfus is running the same ads against me that I was running against Melissa Hart in 2006, but they're not going to resonate."
Mr. Rothfus grew up in western New York and moved to Edgeworth in 1990 with his wife, a Pittsburgh-area native. A Notre Dame law school graduate, Mr. Rothfus has spent most of the past 12 years working for the Downtown law firm Yukevich, Marchetti, Liekar & Zangrilli, aside from a two-year stint in Washington working for the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration. From 2005 to 2007 he worked with faith-based organizations responding to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.
He entered the race nearly a year ago and became the underdog in the Republican primary once the widely known former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan declared her candidacy. Ms. Buchanan's campaign was beset with turbulence from the start, as she got into an on-air spat with KDKA radio host Marty Griffin the day she entered the race, and she failed to raise much money. Mr. Rothfus won the primary handily.
Mr. Rothfus is at a significant financial disadvantage to the well-stocked Mr. Altmire, who was up with television ads touting his independence nearly a month before Mr. Rothfus hit the airwaves. In an interview, Mr. Rothfus noted that he was on television earlier than Mr. Altmire was in '06.
Mr. Rothfus also talked up his volunteer-driven campaign that has fanned out across the district -- which includes the North Hills and all or part of Beaver, Butler, Westmoreland, Lawrence and Mercer counties -- to talk "about stopping wasteful spending and keeping taxes low and stopping government encroachment in different aspects of our lives."
Even though Mr. Altmire didn't vote for the health care bill, Mr. Rothfus said the former UPMC lobbyist should have been more forceful in his denunciation of the bill instead of sitting on the fence for so long.
Mr. Altmire said this critique is silly, since it would have required him to make a decision before actually reading the bill. Under a national spotlight as a crucial swing vote, he decided to vote against the bill a day after its final permutation was published. Also, Mr. Altmire said he's not backing a repeal of the bill because it would be nothing but a time-wasting political exercise against a sure veto from Mr. Obama.
Mr. Rothfus has attacked the incumbent for some of the votes he did make -- including the stimulus bill and a vote to raise the nation's debt limit -- but also is focused on seizing the anti-Democrat energy.
"He's proven that he cannot stop the big government Obama-Pelosi agenda," Mr. Rothfus said. "His votes are inconsequential. It's inconsequential with respect to the health care vote. I can stop it with 38 other people who get elected this November [which would give the GOP a House majority]. People want it stopped."
Mr. Altmire, meanwhile, wants to make this race about him, instead of the national narrative. He talks up his constituent service and focus on veterans' issues that have marked his four years in office. And if he's re-elected, he said his middle-of-the-road voting habits will only raise his stature in a closely divided Congress.
"For me as a centrist Democrat I think that those are the folks that are going to make the difference in almost every vote in the next Congress, regardless of whether it's a one- or two-seat majority either way," he said.
"So the people in the middle -- Republicans too, [Allentown's Charlie] Dent, [Chester County's Jim] Gerlach -- we're going to have to come together and put the country first ... We really have a chance to lead the way in bringing the country together."
In a district that includes the city of Pittsburgh and close-in Allegheny County suburbs, Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, is seeking his ninth term in office. He faces Republican Melissa Haluszczak, whose first foray into politics was organizing "tea party" events last year, and anti-war environmentalist Ed Bortz, the Green Party candidate.
Mr. Doyle, 57, has been an ardent supporter of the Democratic Party's Washington agenda, from the health care overhaul to the Wall Street reform bill to economic policies -- which he says are of paramount importance.
"These are accomplishments that we should be proud of and run on -- and I do," Mr. Doyle said. "Nobody's saying it's 'mission accomplished' and nobody's saying it's all fixed -- you don't fix eight years in 21 months. But I think there isn't an economist in the country that would disagree with the fact that we're moving in a positive direction."
Ms. Haluszczak, a 42-year-old paralegal from Coraopolis, follows the anti-spending, limited-government agenda of the tea party movement.
An Arlington High School and University of Pittsburgh graduate, Ms. Haluszczak said Mr. Doyle has not been visible and responsive enough to his constituents. She cited the fact that the incumbent generally doesn't hold town hall meetings -- he says he can reach more people through other means -- as an example of his being aloof to the district's concerns.
"They just want someone to respond to them," Ms. Haluszczak said of 14th District residents. "They want someone to listen to them, and they aren't getting that from all levels."
Ms. Haluszczak said the first items on her agenda when she gets to Washington would be repealing the health care reform bill, drastically reducing spending and auditing the federal reserve.
Mr. Bortz, 62, of the North Side, said the top thing on his mind is getting troops out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"There is a lot of anxiety," he said. "Folks talk about how many years is this going to go, and all we can say as the Green Party is we've been opposed to these wars from the beginning. We're still opposed to these wars."
An Oliver High School graduate and former electrician, Mr. Bortz left the Pittsburgh area for a while before moving back in 1992. He still does some consulting work, he says, but is more focused on writing poetry and activism these days.
His platform calls for aggressive funding for renewable energy projects, he says "clean coal" is a myth and he's against Marcellus Shale drilling because of environmental harm.
Representing the South Hills, most of Washington County and parts of Beaver and Westmoreland counties, Republican Rep. Tim Murphy is running for a fifth term against Democrat and political newcomer Dan Connolly.
Mr. Murphy, 58, of Upper St. Clair, said economic issues are paramount -- especially reining in Washington spending.
"Repeatedly, people are saying, 'Stop sending us into debt. Stop having China run us,' " Mr. Murphy said. "They want Washington to be under control and they don't think that's there now."
Mr. Murphy, a child psychologist and member of the GOP doctors' caucus, voted against the main planks of the Democratic agenda, but he said he wanted to emphasize what he is in favor of: cost-cutting health care reforms, extending the Bush tax cuts and a thorough review of wasteful and duplicative government programs.
Mr. Connolly, 27, of South Park, is a former Washington staffer for Sen. Arlen Specter and also worked for a transportation and infrastructure firm there before moving home to the South Hills to mount a run for Congress last year. His father died in the USAir Flight 427 crash in Hopewell in 1994.
As opposed to an anti-Democrat year, Mr. Connolly sees 2010 as an anti-incumbent year, and the Upper St. Clair High School and University of Pittsburgh graduate is emphasizing jobs and the economy in his campaign.
"If Republicans pick up seats, it's only because Democrats have more to lose," Mr. Connolly said. "I think everybody in Washington ought to be nervous about keeping their jobs."
Mr. Connolly said he would have voted against the cap-and-trade energy bill but probably would have supported the health care reform bill. He backs development of the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves, but he would sign onto the FRAC Act, which is opposed by the industry and would put such extraction under the supervision of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and force companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the "fracking" process.
Daniel Malloy: email@example.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.