The Republican victory in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District race Tuesday, on an otherwise dreary day for the state and national GOP, could serve as a beachhead for the party for years to come.
Neither conservative Democrat Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, nor the blue team's best closer, former President Bill Clinton, could stop the forces that turned the district Republican for the first time since 1974.
Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, nearly rode his party's midterm wave to a win over Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, in 2010. This time, despite presidential candidate Mitt Romney's loss on the national and state tickets, Mr. Rothfus' small-government message led to a winning performance in the conservative district outside Pittsburgh.
The message "fits what people in southwestern Pennsylvania are feeling right now," Rothfus campaign manager Jonathan Raso said Wednesday. "The concern regarding principles we hold dear, like being pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, wanting limited and accountable government -- our message was in tune with that. It's not rocket science."
Mr. Critz's policy formula was much the same, but he had the anchor -- at least in this district -- of President Barack Obama dragging him down. His campaign knew that from the start and tried to distance him from his fellow Democrat in their first ad of the fall, but it failed. The president lost Tuesday in every county in the 12th other than Allegheny, and the North Hills sections of the county went to Mr. Romney.
Even Mr. Altmire, who usually did well in Allegheny and Beaver counties before losing this year's Democratic primary to Mr. Critz, could not have withstood those headwinds, North Hills Republican consultant Michael O'Connell said.
"There was no way for Critz or Altmire to win. There are no ticket-splitters left," he said.
Republican mapmakers designed the new 12th District for a GOP pickup after the 2010 census, and that helped, too. Mr. Rothfus' vote totals in Allegheny increased by more than 14,000 from two years ago, and this time around Democratic parts of Allegheny in the Alle-Kiski Valley were redistricted into U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle's safely Democratic seat to the south.
Mr. Rothfus lost in Beaver County, which has a nearly 2 to 1 Democratic registration edge, but only by 1 percentage point (853 votes) after losing by 16 percentage points (8,966 votes) two years ago. More of increasingly Republican Westmoreland County was added to the 12th District as mapmakers stretched the district to Johnstown in Cambria County, and Mr. Rothfus did well in Westmoreland, too, gathering 18,000 more votes than in 2010.
Mr. Critz was hurt by outside groups pouring $10 million into the race, the most in any congressional race in the country, with about 60 percent targeting him. They especially stung in the Pittsburgh media market, where he was still new but where Mr. Rothfus had been running nonstop since 2010.
"For not being as well known in Allegheny and Beaver, Mark did really well in the part that was the current 12th. People knew him, and the attacks had less resonance," said the Democrat's spokesman, Mike Mikus. "To the 67 percent that was new, it was hard to go against those attacks. People only get to know you so much over the course of a year."
Mr. Critz leaned on organized labor's grass-roots efforts to battle back against the conservative air war, but it was not enough.
"If you watch local television, you'll probably puke," United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard said in a rally Friday.
Mr. Mikus said the Democrat could never have performed as well as he did, losing by 3 percentage points at 51.5-48.5 percent, without labor's help.
"In the end, sometimes politics is like rock-paper-scissors, and TV is the paper when the ground game is the rock," he said.
Mr. Clinton was Mr. Obama's most effective campaign surrogate this fall, addressing the Democratic National Convention, barnstorming for Mr. Obama the past few weeks and having a lead role in the campaign of state attorney general winner Kathleen Kane, who received the most votes of anyone on the Pennsylvania ballot Tuesday. Mr. Clinton introduced Mr. Critz in Market Square on Monday and campaigned for him last month at a union hall in Beaver.
Knowing well that Beaver voted against Mr. Obama in 2008 and would do so again Tuesday, Mr. Clinton never mentioned the president by name at the October event.
The areas making up the district have been trending Republican for two decades, Mr. O'Connell noted. On "cultural issues it's pretty conservative territory, and it's also territory where -- those issues aside -- if you're toughing it out there you're looking for something aspirational. You want to hear how to start a small business and make it work ... and not hear about getting double-teamed by the federal government."
Mr. Raso, the Rothfus campaign manager, said it was a "bittersweet" night for GOP partisans at their party on McKnight Road on Tuesday, but his candidate's goals -- including pledges to repeal Mr. Obama's health care overhaul, block regulation, cut debt and government spending -- would have been the same no matter who won the presidential race.
"The work that needs to be done is not easy no matter who occupies the White House," he said. "The challenges have not changed, and the reason Keith Rothfus ran for the seat have not changed."
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.