U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, used his deep home base support and the heft of organized labor to win his fratricidal bout with fellow Democratic Congressman Jason Altmire, picking up an underdog victory in an increasingly conservative district.
Mr. Critz now faces Mr. Altmire's 2010 Republican foe Keith Rothfus in the 12th District race. He will have to refill a war chest siphoned off by his face-off with Mr. Altmire, in a clash that Republican mapmakers forced by putting the incumbents in the same seat during decennial redistricting.
"We hoped to win it on the ground and that's what we did," Mr. Critz said. "What the unions did in the new parts of the district was make sure I could break in there and be introduced to the people who didn't know me.
"I'm overwhelmed by the percentages I got in Cambria county. I worked hard, but to get in the 90th percentile is really overwhelming."
Mr. Altmire, elected in 2006, is a former UPMC lobbyist and his 2010 vote against President Obama's health care reform package was part of his undoing. Though Mr. Critz was an opponent too, labor leaders claimed Mr. Altmire lied to them over the vote and went all out to beat him, with almost 20 union bodies pledging get-out-the-vote efforts touching tens of thousands of union members, retirees and relatives on Mr. Critz's behalf.
While Mr. Altmire won close to 70 percent of the votes in Allegheny and Beaver counties, Mr. Critz won about 90 percent in his base in Cambria and Somerset. The Johnstown man enjoyed a nearly 15,000-vote margin in those counties, while Mr. Altmire had a less than 10,000-vote edge in his previous areas.
"If you had told me before the race of the numbers in my own territory I would have been happy with the results. That's where the whole campaign was fought," Mr. Altmire said from the U.S. Capitol Tuesday night. "Seventy percent of my followers wanted to return me to office so I'm at peace with everything we did. That Johnstown, Somerset area came through [for Critz] incredibly."
Mr. Critz's win had an old-time Democratic feel, with its reliance on labor and seniors issues, and a heavy dose of the late John Murtha, whom Mr. Critz replaced in a 2010 special election after his former boss died. If he had lost to Mr. Altmire, Johnstown would have been assured of being without its own congressman for the first time in four decades.
Mr. Altmire, 44, had big advantages in this primary race. His name recognition from three terms in Congress helped him to a 24-point lead in March according to his campaign's polling and about two-thirds of the new district resided in areas he represented in the Greater Pittsburgh area. He also had the support of Democratic committees in Beaver, Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, which have 75 percent of the district's Democratic voters.
But an early note of organizational weakness came when a Critz campaign court challenge of his nominating petitions -- many of them collected by a 23-year-old aide -- came within 150 signatures of getting him tossed from the ballot. Mr. Altmire called the challenge "an inexcusable lack of respect" but it seemed to embolden the Critz campaign's underdog bid.
That organization will now have to redouble efforts to introduce Mr. Critz, 50, to new voters of both parties in the district, and consider whether his old-school message tailored to blue-collar coal country will resonate in the growing suburbs north of Pittsburgh. The new version of the 12th District went from holding 50 percent of voters for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008 to 54 percent after redistricting.
Due to the Democratic infighting, Mr. Rothfus, an Edgeworth attorney, will be in the unique position of starting the general election with more campaign money than the incumbent, heightening the chances that the national GOP will focus on helping him flip the seat this fall. The Republican is celebrating both his campaign kickoff and his 50th birthday Wednesday with a fundraiser.
Whether he was facing Mr. Critz or Mr. Altmire, Mr. Rothfus said they represent "policies that have failed and relying on big government ... I don't see very many differences between them."
The redesigned district put parts of Mr. Altmire's old 4th District seat in parts of Beaver, Allegheny, Lawrence and Westmoreland counties with Mr. Critz's base in Cambria and Somerset counties. It also placed Mr. Rothfus' home less than a mile outside the borders. Though it is not required by law, Mr. Rothfus plans to move into the 12th District boundary in Sewickley within weeks.
Mr. Critz and Mr. Altmire had conservative voting records for Democrats so they had to search for new ways to differentiate themselves. The late stages of the campaign were dominated by Critz charges that an Altmire vote in favor of a Republican-backed balanced budget amendment and against a Democratic attempt to embarrass the GOP over an ultra-conservative budget would hurt funding for Social Security and Medicare.