California, Pa. — As expected, the race for Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district seat – between Democratic Rep. Mark Critz and Republican challenger Keith Rothfus – turned out to be a closely watched, big-money, hard-fought and ultimately close contest, with Rothfus edging the incumbent, 51.5 percent – 48.5 percent, even as Democrats were sweeping Pennsylvania’s presidential race, the U.S. Senate contest and races for statewide office.
Critz’s loss leaves the Pennsylvania congressional delegation with only one Democrat representing a district west of Harrisburg – Pittsburgh-based Rep. Mike Doyle. That’s a drop from three in the current Congress, and this shift could have significant implications for the region’s relationship with the federal government, particularly on the allocation of federal spending.
Critz was a longtime aide to Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha, whose clout in securing federal funds for his Johnstown-based district was legendary. When Murtha died, Critz won a tough race to succeed him. He won again in the 2010 general election, then notched what many considered an underdog victory against fellow Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire in 2012 after a Republican remap threw the two incumbents into the same district.
Critz’s string of wins suggested that a Democrat with pro-government views, socially conservative stances and a long connection to voters back home could continue to prevail in southwestern Pennsylvania. But that string came to an end on Election Night 2012, when Rothfus, a staunch fiscal conservative, declared victory.
Using the Rothfus-Critz race as a lens, we traveled to southwestern Pennsylvania one week after the election to look at the emerging realities of a region in political transition. Based on interviews with political activists and observers in the region, here’s a rundown of the reasons why Rothfus was able to beat Critz in 2012 and what it could mean for the area’s future.
The power of advertising in a House race
While political analysts are wondering how effective the flood of television advertising was in shaping the presidential race, there’s wider agreement that concentrating media buys in a U.S. House district can make a difference.
The 12th district reportedly attracted the most independent spending of any U.S. House race in the nation – upwards of $10 million, not counting the $4 million-plus spent by the two candidates themselves.
“There was a huge amount of TV money spent on redefining Rothfus as a ‘regular guy,’ and it was fairly effective in Beaver County, where there are still many doubts about whether he is really a Tea Partier in disguise,” said Jack Manning, a business and economic development consultant who ran as an Independent for Beaver County Commissioner.
Tim Waters, the national political director of the United Steel Workers, agreed. Rothfus “had such a massive amount of money spent on his behalf, both from his campaign and from outside Super PACs, that they just pounded away on TV and let that define him,” Waters said. While Waters contends that some of the pro-Rothfus ads were misleading, he acknowledges that the negative attacks on Critz were “effective.”
Meanwhile, Mike Mikus, a consultant for Critz’s campaign, credited Rothfus with running “a strong campaign” in which “he always stayed on message.” Mikus said Rothfus was able to avoid “being nailed down by refusing to say whether or not would have voted for Paul Ryan’s budget. This forced Democratic-aligned outside groups to water down their messaging on the air.”
Primary battles can have lasting consequences
The bitter Democratic primary between Critz and Altmire left some scars, observers say.
Manning said that, at least from his perspective in Beaver County, both the Altmire and Critz camps could have done more to unify the party.
“Outside of one Pittsburgh kick-off event, no one ever saw Critz and Altmire together,” Manning said. “It was a huge mistake for Critz to assume that he didn’t need Altmire after he beat him in primary. Altmire is still very popular with many influential donors and activists. Many Altmire people were alienated by the perception of a rift between the two.”
In southwestern Pennsylvania, President Obama was an albatross
Outside of solidly Democratic precincts in and around Pittsburgh, voters in southwestern Pennsylvania never warmed to Barack Obama – not in 2008, and even less so in 2012.
Among the counties that are part of the 12th district, Obama came closest in Beaver, where he lost by 7 points. In Cambria, Obama lost by 18 points, in Lawrence by 10 points, in Somerset by 43 points, and in Westmoreland by 23 points. Other southwestern Pennsylvania counties saw similar results. Mitt Romney won in Fayette County by 9 points, in Greene by 18 points and in Washington County by 14 points.
On Election Day, Critz outperformed Obama by distancing himself from the president on key issues. But that was not enough to carry the day.
“Looking at our internal polling and the results, the larger forces of President Obama’s unpopularity in the district, along with the wave of outside money, ended up being our undoing,” Mikus said. “A handful of Democratic activists have complained that Critz distancing himself from Obama hurt, but that is completely untrue. Mark over-performed the president by a wide margin, but it was not enough.”
Larry Maggi — the Democratic nominee in a neighboring congressional race who lost his bid to unseat GOP Rep. Tim Murphy – said both he and Critz sensed significant opposition to Obama during the campaign.
“It didn’t matter who Critz was personally – to voters, he was a Democrat, and his team leader was President Obama, and in that district, they weren’t going to vote for the president,” said Maggi, who serves as a Washington County commissioner.
One particular issue that is increasingly driving a wedge between historically Democratic voters in southwestern Pennsylvania and Obama is energy policy. There is a widespread perception that the Obama administration is anti-coal and opposes domestic energy production, said Harlan Shober, a Democratic Washington County commissioner.
Union backing goes only so far in Republican-leaning territory
Critz’s primary victory was widely attributed to a superior ground game by labor unions, who largely supported Critz over Altmire. But in the general election, even a strong labor effort was not enough.
The region is “not as reliably Democratic as it used to be when the steel mills dominated,” Manning said.
“Where labor got involved and hit the ground, Critz did OK,” Maggi added. But the 12th is “a sprawling district, and that diluted labor’s ground game.”
The biggest factor of all: The Republican-drawn map
Critz was a well-liked figure in his home county of Cambria – he won the district by a 36-point margin – but Cambria only accounted for 14 percent of the votes cast district-wide due to the redistricting map drawn by Republicans in the legislature.
In Beaver, where Critz won by a single percentage point, “many voters felt Critz was too disconnected coming from Johnstown,” Manning said. “It was simply geography. Those folks felt Rothfus was the lesser of two evils because he grew up closer and seemed likely to be more accessible.”
Critz won only one other county beyond Cambria and Beaver – Lawrence County, by just a point. However, Lawrence accounted for just 2 percent of the district-wide vote.
By contrast, the counties won by Rothfus accounted for 60 percent of the district-wide vote. Rothfus won the sections of Allegheny in the district by 12 points, the Somerset portions by 8 points and the Westmoreland precincts by 14 points.
“This race came down to what happened in Harrisburg long before this campaign started,” said Waters of the United Steel Workers. “The Republicans gerrymandered the district to try to insure a Republican would win it, and they were successful.”
Rothfus’ narrow loss to Altmire in 2010 was a clear harbinger, said Jon Delano, a political analyst with KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh.
“When you consider that Rothfus came close to winning in a Democratic district two years ago, and then you give him a district that votes substantially more Republican, this year was clearly going to be much easier,” Delano said.
What’s the outlook?
Observers here agreed that it’s too soon to write off Democrats in southwestern Pennsylvania entirely.
“I think that Rothfus would be vulnerable to another race with a Democrat who has better geographic positioning,” said Kirk Holman, a former Republican official in southwestern Pennsylvania. “If one were to come out of Westmoreland County or the North Hills, it might be a very different story.”
Pam Lezark, an activist in Plum, Pa., who supported Critz, said that “discounting labor in future elections would be huge mistake. Labor put in money and more importantly a lot of people out there. They not only have the numbers but the sympathies of many more who are the sons and daughters of steel, coal or railroad workers. Those union jobs of our parents put many through college.”
Rothfus also needs to be attentive to the needs of the district, several observers added. There’s a precedent – Republican Melissa Hart won the seat in the 1990s but was ousted by Altmire in 2006. In that case, voters preferred a moderate-to-conservative Democrat to a staunch Republican.
“A lot will be determined by the record Rothfus amasses in Congress,” Mikus said. “If he follows the Tea Party Caucus and casts far-right votes, he will be in trouble because this is not a hard-right conservative district.”
Manning agreed. “Southwest Pennsylvania, while fairly conservative, does not favor obstructionist politics,” he said. If Rothfus doesn’t remain open to compromise, he said, “it may come back to haunt him in future elections.”
Still, observers agreed that the GOP will be in the driver’s seat in this region’s federal races for at least the next decade. After all, Critz had a lot going for him for a Democrat – a long track record in the area, a personal connection to voters, socially conservative views, an election cycle that turned out to be good for Democrats nationally – and not even he could win.
“I think Mark Critz was the right Democrat for that district, and if Mark Critz couldn’t win, I’m not sure any typical Democrat will be able to,” Maggi said.
“The Democratic Party is not dead in these counties,” Mikus added. “But it is a much tougher fight to win. If they want to win, they will need to recruit candidates in the mold of Mark Critz and Jason Altmire at all levels and give them the leeway to reflect the political leanings of the district.”