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How Rothfus Won – And What It Means for Southwest Pa

Critz, left, and Rothfus

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.”

17 Responses

  1. Valarie,

    Critz won primary and lost in the areas where Altmire would have been more competitive.

    Beaver 78000 – critz barely won, altmire would have won much larger

    Allegheny- critz lost by 15000, altmire would have performed much better

    Lawrence- altmire would have outperformed critz

    Westmoreland- altmire would have outperformed critz here too

    Cambria- critz won by 12000, would outperform altmire.

    Somerset- critz area and he lost.

  2. There is plenty of blame to go around: GERRYMANDERING the 12 District,
    “Dark Money” /Independent spending,
    Democrats willing to cut off their noses to spite their faces! (They are still angry over the Altmire loss and don’t see room in our “BIG Tent” for what they deem Republican leaning views.) AND, last but not least, VERY strong, OLD, working class, Democratic districts within some District 12 communities that voted Republican BECAUSE our president happens to be Black. They voted for McCain in 2008 and they voted for Romney in 2012. The Critz campaign/Mike Mikus (SUPPORTED by Democratic Leadership) was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I personally do not agree with Mark Critz on every issue but I am proud to have supported him along with organized labor. I worked hard and stood behind Altmire in his battle against Ms. Hartless, however, I also found Altmire to be very disingenuous. I was also dismayed as he/Altmire became the “Darling Democrat” on Fox News as he proudly stood with Capital Hill “Blue Dogs” and touted his independence. As a “Yellow Dog” Democrat, if Altmire would have been our candidate, I would have worked equally as hard for him again! This race was an uphill battle for Crtiz and it would have been an uphill battle for Altmire. If he/Altmire stumped for Critz would it have made a difference? It may have rallied the Dems. that voted against their own interests because of the Altmire primary loss. You can spin the results if it makes you feel better. In the end it was a huge loss for Democrats, and because of the way in which they won, a shallow victory for Republicans.

  3. Why is everyone over analyzing this. This election was bought and paid for by beltway outside interests. Its very simple, with the kind of money the GOP was prepared to spend in the new 12th, George Washington would have lost by 2 if there were a “D” next to his name on the ballot in PA-12.

    The Citizens United era has begun. An era where puppet candidates like Rothfus can and will beat tier 1 democratic candidates like Critz/Altmire simply because of the money they are capable of reigning in.

    In this case, Critz lost because outside money made his name synonymous with something the people of the 12th viewed unfavorably… in this case it was Obama.

    Its very simple, the PA-12 election was bought and paid for… Citizens United = the end of American Democracy.

  4. Wasn’t Larry Maggi the idiot who insulted Democrats and Republicans in his only campaign ad? I think he was trounced by 30 points by Murphy. Larry Maggi can’t handicap Democrats’ political fortunes in SWPA because he’s a three-time congressional loser. He’s also notoriously corrupt. Don’t be surprised when the new state AG scalps Larry over the way he shook down political contributions from county workers this past year.

  5. DEAR THOMAS: The Rothfus team overtly played the race card. Several of their mailers black-faced Critz, which were mailed under the PAGOP franking stamp! The consultants who ran the Rothfus campaign have used these tactics before! The only insane thing is that the Rothfus team, and their consultants and the PAGOP were not called out by the press for these race baiting mailers. Does anyone who is in the know really believe that Critz is or was close to President Obama?

  6. Larry Maggi serving as the political analyst for this story is laugh out loud funny. He is not only the dumbest Democrat in western PA he is also the most corrupt self serving one. Shoulda asked Larry if he supported Critz. Yea that’s cuz he didn’t. Larry didn’t support Rob McCord either but he did shake down their donors for cash and threaten to cut their washington county contracts if they didn’t cough it up.

  7. Altmire would have won a general. This was the gop plan, they wanted Critz, but also wanted turzai or Christiana. I predict this will be a competive seat for next two cycles.

  8. According to Lee Atwater, by 1968, you couldn’t yell “nigger, Nigger anymore, but Rothfus and his Beltway mafia friends nearly regressed to those glorious days with their racist pandering campaign. As Obama and Obamacare recede into memory, how can Rothfus and the GOP Beltway mafia run a winning race-based campaign in 2014? Suggestion: get Grover Norquist to buy Mumia a pardon. I know this would be the first time that the justice system in PA was politicized! Then Grover, his Beltway mafia boys and the Rothfus team can buy the PA Democratic Gubernortorial nomination for Mumia! With Mumia at the top of the Dem ticket, Corbett and Rothfus would be guaranteed winners!

  9. Critz biggest problem is that he is not well liked. If he had his old district he would have lost. This was the widest margin between him and another opponent. He is in the pocket of labor and only worries about his own county.
    Critz beat Altmire because like Critz, Altmire thinks a lot of himself and never thought he would lose and didn’t push voters to get out and vote.
    Maggi lost because he has never had to really run a race before and this was bigger and more work than what he is used to. A nice guy and a man of the people more than Murphy ever will be, but he was out of his league in running.
    Had Solobay run, who could be up for the next election, he would have beat Murphy!
    Washington County is a split ticket and Greene County would tend to like Solobay better.
    It’s not all about the Democrat and Republican, we aren’t that stupid over here, it’s about who can win over the people.
    Have you met Critz? At best he’s a brown noser but has no idea, nor does he care, how to help constituents.
    And he’s going to be the next Paterno from what we hear!

  10. “You get what you deserve” That certainly played out to be true in the general for Mikus & Co.

    I did not feel as if we should select someone who was as anti-woman as critz is. I wrote in a candidate for this seat as I thought they were both lousy choices. If I was Obama, I would have had someone kick critzs rear end out of the rally he showed up at after running all those ads against president. What nerve!

  11. Marbear, I can assure that Mikus did not get “just desserts.” He also had an entree, a salad, and much drink before moving on to eating dessert.

    With your poor personal attacks and lack of attention to spelling, I’d think you work for Long and Nyquist.

  12. Plus Stan The Man…

    Critz would never have won this primary if everyone wouldn’t have ganged up on Altmire. Let a man fight his own battle for a change, as labor would have been the winner regardless. Instead, it was a nasty primary and people like Mikus got just desserts in the end.
    Im hoping instead of the blame game… the result should be get smarter moving forward.

  13. Fairly obvious now w numbers that someone center-west would be more competitive in general. I seemed to remember someone from primary who had strong connections in the north hills and Westmoreland county.

    Nonetheless, I would not hire Mikus if I were a challenger.

  14. What makes you think Altmire would have run a good campaign in the general election if he could not get his act together in the primary?

    Don’t blame labor. Blame Altmire.

  15. Mike

    1). It was not a perceived slight. Altmire LIED to labor. Tim Holden voted against the bill but they still supported him.

    2.) Altmire should have won the primary regardless of labor. He represented the overwhelming majority of the district but lost because his campaign stunk.

    3.) Why do you give Altmire a pass for running a terrible campaign? If he runs a good campaign, he’s the nominee regardless of who labor supported.

  16. In 2010, the unions did not support Jason Altmire, because of a perceived slight concerning ObamaCare. If the unions had given their typical level of support, it would not have been close.

    In 2012, they continued to have it out for Altmire and worked hard to oust him in the primary, so the weaker Mark Critz won the primary.

    Mark Critz ran to the left of Altmire to win the nomination, and then had to pivot way to the right in the general election. This left people in the old 4th who didn’t vote for Critz in the primary wondering who he really was and either voting for Rothfus or not voting for either.

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