Johnstown — It was unclear at times whether Reps. Jason Altmire and Mark Critz were speaking to a primary electorate or a general election audience. They alternately raced to the left and back to the center during Monday’s debate at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.
It was certainly Critz’s home turf: his yard signs littered the campus, students and steelworkers waved his signs outside the venue, and 7 of 10 audience members wore his campaign stickers.
But the crowd was friendly, and Altmire earned his fair share of applause. It’s one of two debates in the primary; the second will air on WPXI Tuesday evening.
One of the questions asked how to differentiate the two, given their similar ideological leanings. Each boasted of his record of working across the aisle to find common, non-partisan solutions. Then, each argued why he was the better Democrat.
Critz struck early, hammering home a major attack from his campaign: Altmire’s vote in favor of a Balanced Budget Amendment.
“This is where there’s a huge disagreement between Jason and I, is that, the Republican Balanced Budget Amendment, and independent study said that it would cost this country 15 million jobs. It would be devastating to Social Security and Medicare,” he said.
“Social Security and Medicare didn’t put us in this situation, they shouldn’t be used to balance the budget,” he declared to applause.
Altmire didn’t back down but reiterated his support for a BBA. He said the study Critz cited was out of date and moot.
“I do support balancing the budget. I support a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution because I don’t want to crowd out the vital spending that needs to be done on our earned programs,” he said, like veterans benefits and Social Security.
The two Democratic incumbents were drawn into the same district, a topic that came up early in the debate. Altmire opened by saying the map-drawing process was too partisan, that districts should be designed to be 50/50 Republican to Democrat to facilitate centrism. Critz noted that Altmire had lobbied Democratic lawmakers in Harrisburg to vote for the GOP map.
Both had won elections as conservative Democrats in conservative districts, but they have a new audience this April.
Critz charged Altmire with voting to repeal vital elements of the health care law. Altmire voted against the Affordable Care Act, but also voted against its total repeal. Critz was not yet in office during that vote, but said he would have done the same.
Monday night, Critz embraced the plan to a greater degree.
“The system we had [before the new law] was not working. Is the health care bill the answer? Does it solve all the issues? Well, no. It needs a lot of work,” he said, citing low Medicare reimbursement rates in the district. But, “I voted every time to support the bill in its current form and worked to improve it.”
Another question mentioned Planned Parenthood. It was Altmire’s turn to attack.
“I am pro-life, but I have voted at every opportunity to provide funding for Planned Parenthood,” he said to loud applause. His campaign has criticized Critz for a vote in 2011 to defund the organization. He reiterated that he opposed taxpayer funding for abortion.
“My position is funding for Planned Parenthood helps prevent abortions,” he said.
The clearest example of the dizzying left-to-center, back-to-left dynamic was an email sent mid-debate from the Critz campaign.
“Altmire supported legislation that would allow insurance companies to deny coverage for contraception,” it charged. It cited this report from Planned Parenthood, which said of H.R. 358: “A vote AGAINST H.R. 358 is a vote in support of women’s health.”
Indeed Altmire vote in favor for H.R. 358. So did Critz.
“I’m not the candidate trying to run as a pro-choice candidate,” Critz responded, and noted Altmire’s 0 rating from NARAL.
“I’m not hiding from the fact that I’m pro-life. I am pro-life. Mark told you what my record is with pro-choice groups,” Altmire shot back. “The issue is on Planned Parenthood funding, that money does not fund abortions. That money funds cancer screenings and preventive health care for women.”
But neither position on the issue of abortion is inherently a boost or a detriment in the primary. Critz won applause from the Democrats in the crowd when he declared, “I’m pro-life, and I don’t hide from that fact.”
LIkewise, Altmire received a hearty hand when he stressed his tough stance on illegal immigration.
“I am a hard liner on illegal immigration. I think I am as hard line as anybody in the Congress on this issue,” he said. “This has to be about preventing the illegal immigration from happening in the first place.”
Critz echoed him almost point for point.
Ultimately, it was more a question of style than substance. There was no definitive moment; each scored a few hits, each had to retreat a few times. Altmire’s experience on the stump showed and he came across more polished. Critz did a better job throwing red meat. Forced to pick, we’d give the edge to Altmire. He came out of the lion’s den with few scars, if any, and had some of the Critz sticker-wearers clapping despite themselves.
The Republican candidate is Allegheny County attorney Keith Rothfus, who Altmire defeated in 2010.