Cracking the Critz Code
I’ve never met Mark Critz. I saw him on the campaign trail once or twice during his successful special election campaign in 2010. He seems like a good man. And, I have great respect for the Congressman, Mike Mikus and his entire team. They handed me my worst defeat in politics and my most rewarding win – in a mere three years’ time.
I underestimated him from the get go. Following the death of the legendary John Murtha, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) prepared for a special election to fill his seat. At the time, Minority Leader John Boehner and House Republicans were seeing the early signs of big, possibly huge, pickups in the House. Whispers of reaching the majority were getting louder despite our 39–seat minority status.
At the time, I must have sounded something like, “His district director? No way. They’re not that dumb. Why not Wozniak? Or Mrs. Murtha? Game over if so.” In reality, I should have been hoping for anyone but Critz.
The McEnroe of Politics
The NRCC kicked off the 2010 special with TV buys in both the Pittsburgh and Johnstown media markets trying to frame Critz as an out-of-step liberal. Conservative western Pennsylvania had been trending red for a while.
It was a critical error. We left ourselves vulnerable to a deadly counterattack. Mark Critz’s first ad of the special election was a candidate-to-camera response ad. Simply unheard of in political TV advertising.
It was the most effective ad of the campaign. When Critz looked straight at voters and said he was pro-life and pro-gun (and meant it), our credibility began to bleed out. When you swing and miss badly in a campaign, voters tend to not forget.
I learned then that Mark Critz and his team played a great serve-and-volley game. We’d attack hard. They’d rebut better. The final score was reflective of the way the match was played. Mark Critz proved wrong those who discounted his political talents. Myself included.
The loss sent shockwaves through the NRCC and House Republican leadership. The wave was building in the Spring of 2010 and GOP hopes were rising. But then Mark Critz seemed to disprove the whole notion by winning in conservative southwestern Pennsylvania with the political world watching.
A Second Chance
As fortune would have it, Mark Critz found himself at the center of national politics again in 2012. Once again, he outplayed the odds and won in defiance of conventional wisdom when he beat Congressman Jason Altmire handily in one of those rare, but always epic, Member-versus-Member primaries. These bizarre matchups only occur every 10 years as a consequence of biennial redistricting.
What I knew about Keith Rothfus was that he too paid little attention to conventional wisdom. He won a primary in 2010 that no one thought he could. As the newly-minted GOP nominee in the old 4th District, he arrived at the NRCC magnanimous and determined. He left a lasting impression.
To make a long story short, Keith’s race against Altmire simply broke too late. The NRCC Independent Expenditure money had been spent. As the 63-seat wave was cresting, we were trying in vain to keep up with a rapidly expanding playing field of races. Five pickups already appeared likely in Pennsylvania. I believe Keith would have won in 2010 if we had invested in the race. But no one was to blame.
In 2011, I and others were guilty of flirting with other recruits for the newly-drawn 12th District. But Keith Rothfus was the right candidate. He had proven he was ferociously dedicated to fundraising and had a strong grassroots following. I’ll take those two traits in a candidate and beat you every time.
Early polling showed that Keith had little-to-no residual name identification, even in the old 4th District. Meanwhile, Critz had a Murtha-esque base in Johnstown and respectable name ID in the Pittsburgh market from the primary. Critz started the race up 44-29% in internal Rothfus/NRCC polling.
As Labor Day approached, the NRCC went on the air early. But this time with a thematic that fit Mark Critz in a way that “liberal” never did. He “said one thing and did another”. It was the kind of defining narrative that most campaigns never achieve against an opponent.
The Rothfus campaign stretched their budget and went on the air in late August. Their objective was to both raise name ID and start building a protective layer around Keith in anticipation of the millions in negative ads that were coming.
The strategy of the Critz campaign and four separate Democratic outside groups was to spend big early in an attempt to destroy our planes on the runway. We were badly outspent early on and we knew their strategy was a sound one.
The message was straight from the Democratic playbook: the rich want to fuel their jets with the human remains of the middle class and seniors. Keith Rothfus is a bad fit for that caricature in the same way Critz was ill-suited for our attacks in 2010.
Keith Rothfus may not be flashy but he is as sincere, serious and compassionate as they come. He’s serving to save this country and every American, regardless of age, gender or race, from the approaching cliff. His lifestyle and motivations are every bit that of a “regular guy”.
The biggest and ugliest debate of the campaign was the “Regular Guy” ad series. There are plenty of good reasons to not run these ads and plenty of people to remind you of those reasons. You risk trivializing the candidate. The campaign believed it would be essential to pair reality and creativity to weather the attacks.
When the attacks came, Keith’s campaign countered with the Regular Guy-themed ads again. Keith Rothfus is not the “Wall Street lawyer” the Democrats said he was. As a private practice attorney, he did some intellectual property work for Mellon Bank. I repeat, Mellon Bank. This is Pittsburgh. What resulted were this New York Times’ story and the Stanwix Street ad.
The ads were wildly effective. They used a touch of levity and common sense to show the attacks against Keith to be empty. The campaign’s strategy broke the voters’ faith in Critz. He would limp the rest of the way.
The next poll out of the field showed Keith had catapulted up and Critz had sunk to a 38-38% dead heat. He had more than weathered the storm. He was on the move.
Critz countered with ads that were defensive on issues that had never surfaced in the campaign. We had not attacked him on cultural issues and yet he was talking about abortion and guns on TV. ‘It worked once so let’s try it again’ was what they must have been thinking. They were crossed up. The Rothfus campaign was dictating the terms of the debate.
You Learn More From Losses
The nail in the coffin was “Alice and Alice”. The ad was Keith’s idea. Great political ads pair the very expression of a person’s candidacy with a creative concept that makes an emotional connection with voters. This ad did that.
In my four years at the NRCC, I have never seen a campaign with better strategic messaging and paid communications. Mike Long and Todd Nyquist of L&N Consulting were the strategic force behind the campaign and Nick Everhart of The Strategy Group for Media was the media consultant. They prevailed against a very capable Critz campaign in some epic hand-to-hand political combat.
Despite the losses of more than a few incumbent Republican Members of Congress, we won some key pickups in 2012 that preserved a healthy majority for Speaker Boehner. PA-12 is the prototype for the kind of hard-fought wins in tossup races that defined election night for House Republicans.
In an unintended but real tribute to Mark Critz, few at the NRCC believed in our chances on the eve of Election Day. Lots of “L”s next to PA-12 in the office pool. The 2010 special election left searing scars.
The saying holds that you learn more from losses than you do from wins. That’s how we turned the most embarrassing loss as House Republicans in 2010 into our biggest win in the country’s most expensive House race in 2012.