In Southwestern Pa., Two Conservative Democratic Incumbents Fight For One Seat

Apr 13, 2012
Originally published on January 29, 2013 4:55 pm

To get elected in southwestern Pennsylvania as a Democrat, it helps to be a conservative one. And because of congressional reapportionment, two conservative Democratic incumbents are facing off for a single seat in their party's primary later this month.

Rep. Jason Altmire and Rep. Mark Critz, who are vying for the state's 12th District seat, each oppose abortion rights and favor gun rights. Their race on April 24 may come down to the few issues that do distinguish the two congressmen.

Pennsylvania is one of the states losing a seat in Congress because of reapportionment. Republicans controlled the redrawing of the congressional district maps and decided to lump two Democratic incumbents into the same district.

That leaves Democrats in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District with a tough choice.

Altmire is perhaps the more polished of the two candidates. His 4th District, where he has been elected three times, has been the northern suburbs surrounding Pittsburgh. As he points out, the newly drawn 12th District contains many of the voters he's represented for the past six years.

"I think the fact that I represent two-thirds of the people that live in the combined district — they know me, they know my record — that's going to give me the advantage in getting to meet voters and have them understand what I'm all about," said Altmire, who met Wednesday with seniors at a community center in Plum, Pa.

The senior center has had some recent renovations, thanks to a $300,000 federal grant Altmire helped secure. The seniors' big concerns are, not surprisingly, Medicare and Social Security, programs that Altmire, a former health care executive, pledges he will continue to protect.

"That's one of the reasons that I support a balanced budget," Altmire said, speaking at the senior center. "Every family, every business in America has to balance their own budget. It's overwhelmingly popular because it's simple — and only in Washington would you hear people saying that balancing the budget is gonna hurt our economy."

Retired veteran Jeff Pope makes clear he's with Altmire all the way.

"There's no comparison between him and Mark Critz," said Pope. "I've been in his corner from Day 1. He does more for the military man and the military veteran than any other congressman we have. So he will always have my vote."

In a TV ad, Altmire concedes he and Critz share some common ground but adds that there are some "big differences," as well.

He says that Critz "voted with the Republicans against reforming Wall Street and ... didn't vote against the Tea Party budget that would dismantle Medicare and gut Social Security."

Critz has responded with his own ad, attacking Altmire's support for the balanced-budget amendment, saying it would hurt rather than help seniors.

Critz is the successor to his former boss, the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha, who brought countless federal projects and contracts to his Johnstown-based district. His name can be found on everything from the John P. Murtha Neuroscience and Pain Institute to the regional airport.

But much of that district is now gone, and Critz must introduce himself to new voters.

At a campaign appearance at the East Hills Senior Center in Johnstown, he signed a big mock-up of a Social Security card, pledging to "stand firm and strong to make sure that Social Security and Medicare" are never used as bargaining chips in budget negotiations.

The endorsement Critz won Thursday from former President Bill Clinton may be a key to the race.

"If you want to send a Democrat into southwestern Pennsylvania to stand up for you, to give you an endorsement, it would certainly be Bill Clinton, who is very popular in that part of Pennsylvania," said Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College.

The race is likely to hinge on whether Critz's endorsements and his get-out-the-vote effort can overcome Altmire's geographical advantage.

This much is certain: There will be one fewer conservative Democrat in the already polarized Congress next year.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. A week from next Tuesday, Democrats in southwestern Pennsylvania face a tough choice. The state is losing a seat in Congress because of reapportionment. Republicans controlled the redrawing of the congressional district maps, and they decided to lump two incumbent Democrats into the same district. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, the two candidates are now trying to make the most of the few differences between them.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: To get elected in southwestern Pennsylvania as a Democrat, it helps to be a conservative one: opposed to abortion rights, in favor of gun rights. Credentials both Jason Altmire and Mark Critz carry proudly. Altmire is perhaps the more polished of the two. His district has been the northern suburbs surrounding Pittsburgh. As he points out, the district he's now running in contains many of the voters he's represented for three terms.

REPRESENTATIVE JASON ALTMIRE: I think the fact that I represent two-thirds of the people that live in the combined district - they know me, they know my record - that's going to give me the advantage in getting to meet voters and have them understand what I'm all about.

NAYLOR: The voters he's meeting this day are seniors at the Plum Senior Center. The building has had some recent renovations, thanks to a $300,000 federal grant Altmire helped secure. The seniors' big concerns are not surprisingly Medicare and Social Security, programs that Altmire, a former health care executive, pledges he will continue to protect.

ALTMIRE: And that's one of the reasons that I support a balanced budget. Forty-nine states in the country, every family, every business in America has to balance their own budget. It's overwhelmingly popular because it's simple, and only in Washington would you hear people saying that balancing the budget is going to hurt our economy.

NAYLOR: And if you ask retired veteran Jeff Pope who he'll be voting for April 24th, he makes clear he's with Altmire all the way.

JEFF POPE: There ain't no who do I think. It's who I know I'm going to vote for. There's no comparison between him and Mark Critz, OK? I have been in his corner from day one. He does more for the military man and the military veteran than any other congressman we have, so he will always have my vote.

NAYLOR: In a TV ad, Altmire concedes he and his opponent share some common ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

ALTMIRE: Mark Critz and I agree on many things, but there are some big differences between us. Mark Critz voted with the Republicans against reforming Wall Street, and Critz didn't vote against the Tea Party budget that would dismantle Medicare and gut Social Security.

NAYLOR: Critz has responded with his own ad attacking Altmire's support for the balanced budget amendment, saying it would hurt rather than help seniors.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's a question of honesty. Mark Critz did not put Medicare at risk, but Jason Altmire did when he voted for the Republican balanced budget amendment. Former President Bill Clinton said the amendment would require massive reductions in Social Security and major cuts in Medicare. That's why Bill Clinton endorsed Mark Critz, just like the mine workers, steel workers...

NAYLOR: Mark Critz is the successor to his former boss, the late Democratic Congressman John Murtha, who brought countless federal projects and contracts to his gritty Johnstown-based district. His name can be found on everything from the John P. Murtha Neuroscience and Pain Center to the regional airport. But much of that district is now gone, and Critz must introduce himself to new voters.

REPRESENTATIVE MARK CRITZ: They don't know how hard I work for this district, how hard I work for working families, for senior citizens. So it's, really, I'm just telling them who I am.

NAYLOR: Critz, too, is courting older voters. At a campaign appearance at the East Hills Senior Center in Johnstown, he signs a big mock-up of a Social Security card.

CRITZ: I'm going to make my pledge again that I will stand firm and strong to make sure that Social Security and Medicare are never part - or that when the Republicans or anyone even on our side of the party thinks that they can balance the budget on your backs, I'm going to stand firm and make sure that doesn't happen. So thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

NAYLOR: Dennis Conahan, a local steelworkers union official, says Critz has been a friend to working families, pointing to his efforts to see that a coal mine in the district had its operating permit renewed by the EPA.

DENNIS CONAHAN: You know, he went over and above what he was supposed to do, but look at the outcome. There's 700 people who have a working father or mother out there, not - whoever the employees are. That's a good thing.

NAYLOR: Critz's support among union members like Conahan and the endorsement he won from Bill Clinton may be the keys to the race, according to Franklin & Marshall political scientist Terry Madonna.

TERRY MADONNA: If you want to send a Democrat into southwestern Pennsylvania to stand up for you, to give you an endorsement, it would certainly be Bill Clinton, who is very popular in that part of Pennsylvania.

NAYLOR: The race is likely to hinge on whether Critz's endorsements and get-out-to-vote effort can overcome Altmire's geographical advantage. This much is certain: There will be one fewer conservative Democrat in the already polarized Congress next year. Brian Naylor, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.