By Louis Jacobson
PoliticsPA contributing writer
CALIFORNIA, Pa. – In Pennsylvania, this year’s Republican election tide ousted a diverse crop of Democrats – a 13-term incumbent (Paul Kanjorski), a freshman (Kathy Dahlkemper), a commander in the Navy reserve (Chris Carney) and a young Iraq War vet (Patrick Murphy), as well as flipping a Democratic-held open seat.
The Democratic casualties stretched from Lake Erie in the northwest to Scranton in the northeast to the Philadelphia suburbs in the southwest.
Yet two vulnerable Democratic lawmakers facing tough races pulled out victories – narrow victories, but victories nonetheless. Both hailed from blue-collar portions of the state’s southwestern corner – Jason Altmire, representing a district that stretches north of Pittsburgh, and Mark Critz, with a constituency that ranges from Johnstown to the West Virginia line.
By identical margins of 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent, Altmire defeated little-known attorney Keith Rothfus and Critz defeated businessman Tim Burns on Election Day.
So why did Altmire and Critz survive when most other vulnerable Democrats in the Keystone State failed? PoliticsPA visited southwestern Pennsylvania to find out.
Experts here said that both Democrats benefited from two overarching factors.
The first is that, in an election environment that was toxic for Democrats running in any marginal-to-Republican district, both Altmire and Critz succeeded in distancing themselves from the unpopular Democratic congressional leadership.
Altmire – unlike Carney, Dahlkemper, Kanjorski, Murphy and losing Senate candidate Joe Sestak – protected himself by voting against the Democratic health care bill. He also voted against his party’s cap-and-trade energy bill and the TARP bailout.
Critz’ task was somewhat easier — he won his seat in a special election to succeed the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha, and that contest was held after the key roll call votes had already been held — but Critz still took pains to distance himself from his party’s leadership in his rhetoric.
“I hate to think that Altmire benefited from his disloyalty to the president, but unfortunately that plays well in southwestern Pennsylvania,” said Washington County commissioner J. Bracken Burns, a Democrat.
Both Altmire and Critz were able to burnish their conservative credentials in a Republican year by touting their endorsements by the National Rifle Association. In addition, the National Right to Life Committee PAC refrained from officially supporting either Rothfus or Burns – even though the anti-abortion group endorsed the Republican candidate in Pennsylvania in six other House races as well as the Senate race and won every single one of those contests.
The second overarching factor was that both Altmire and Critz faced relatively weak challengers.
Rothfus came from behind to defeat former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan in the GOP primary, but a shortage of cash made it hard for him to increase his public profile. “Had Rothfus had another $100,000, he would have won,” said Pittsburgh-based GOP consultant Bill Green.
Similarly, if former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann or state Rep. Mike Turzai, the incoming House Majority Leader, had run against Altmire instead of Rothfus, the contest would have “looked like the Dahlkemper race,” in which the Democratic incumbent lost by double digits, said Ray Zaborney, a Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant.
Burns, meanwhile, was hurt by Critz attacks associating him with outsourcing, a sore point in the economically hard-hit district (even though the nonpartisan FactCheck.org wrote skeptically of the Critz camp’s charge that Burns “laid off his own workers in Pennsylvania to get tax breaks for outsourcing”).
To be sure, neither of these two broad factors might have been enough to save Altmire and Critz on their own. Like Rothfus and Burns, the challengers to Carney, Dahlkemper and Kanjorski came with baggage and limitations of their own. And Carney and Kanjorski, like Altmire and Critz, also received an NRA endorsement yet still lost.
However, both Altmire and Critz also benefited from factors specific their own contests.
More than anything, Altmire won reelection because socially conservative, economically moderate Democrats from Beaver County came home to their ancestral party rather than turning to the GOP.
In Allegheny County, where 112,000 votes were cast, Rothfus prevailed by a hair. But in Beaver County, where more than 56,000 votes were cast, Altmire won by a surprisingly comfortable margin of 58 percent to 42 percent.
“What saved Altmire were conservative, Beaver County Democrats ,” said Jon Delano, the money and politics editor at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh.
As for Burns, it didn’t help his case that he had lost a special election in May by a larger-than-expected margin. Such a loss so soon before the November election remained a heavy burden for the Burns campaign all the way to Election Day. National Republicans tended to harbor more skepticism about Burns’ chances than they did for other Pennsylvania GOP challengers.
Another factor that might have hobbled Burns’ chances: the possibility that a GOP-controlled redistricting process next year could put Critz into a winner-take-all faceoff with another Democratic lawmaker. Redistricting Critz out of contention, some figured, would give the GOP a second bite at the apple if they failed to seize the seat in 2010.
“There’s a high probability that Critz is toast” due to redistricting, said David W. Patti, president and CEO of the pro-business Pennsylvania Business Council. “So many GOP strategists have been thinking that way since Critz won the special that I’m not sure they gave 110 percent to winning the general election.” (Not everyone here is convinced that the elimination of Critz’ district is a fait accompli, however.)
Critz’ ace in the hole may have been his affiliation with Murtha, with whom he had worked the district for years as a senior aide.
“You still have love for Congressman Murtha” in the district, said Vince Zapotosky, who chairs the Fayette County board of commissioners.
Watching the precinct results roll in, Pam Snyder, who chairs the Greene County board of commissioners, said that Critz consistently outpaced the performance of Sestak, the Democratic Senate candidate, and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dan Onorato. (For instance, in her own county, Critz won narrowly, while both Sestak and Onorato lost.)
Critz “was out and about in all nine counties” in the district, Snyder said. “Being a staffer all those years meant that he understands what it takes to get things done in Washington. That resonated with people in the district.”
Kirk Holman, a onetime Republican official in western Pennsylvania, said that Critz pulled off the “amazing feat of being able to both wrap himself in the Murtha name while distancing self from the Murtha positions,” such as supporting the Democratic health care bill.