Pennsylvania’s Democratic face-off
As Pennsylvania’s new congressional map begins to take shape, Democrats are preparing for an unpleasant scenario that will force them to take sides in a potentially bloody intraparty contest between Reps. Jason Altmire and Mark Critz.
Nearly all of the proposed redistricting plans in circulation point to a consolidation of their western Pennsylvania-based seats, creating the prospect of a primary election where organized labor will play a key role in determining the outcome between the two junior Democrats.
According to multiple Republican and Democratic sources close to the state’s redistricting process, senior Democrats in the congressional delegation aren’t expected to fight that design. With Pennsylvania losing one of its 19 House seats because of reapportionment and Republicans in control of all the levers of redistricting power, most Democrats are resigned to the fact they’ll lose one of their seven current seats — most likely from western Pennsylvania, where population loss has been heavier than elsewhere in the state.
|The only significant sticking point, according to those sources, is convincing bordering Republicans with safe districts to absorb small numbers of Democratic voters.
Both Altmire, who is in his third term, and Critz, who won a 2010 special election for the seat held by the late Rep. John Murtha, share similar profiles as conservative-leaning Democrats who have had success by running against their national party. Since neither is expected to back down or seek other office, Pennsylvania Democrats are gearing up for a contentious 2012 primary that some fear could leave the winner vulnerable to a Republican challenge in November.
“It could leave a very bitter taste in our mouths, given that we have two elected incumbents that we’d have to choose from,” Jack Hanna, the state party’s southwest caucus chairman, told POLITICO. “Both of them are great guys. It’s a shame that one of them might have to be taken out.”
Compounding the problem, Critz and Altmire will need to move to the left to cater to the Democratic base in the primary — in a new district that is unlikely to be very liberal in its final form.
Democratic insiders expect Critz will begin with a slight advantage, largely as a result of political fallout from last year’s health care debate.
Altmire infuriated many Democrats by publicly agonizing over his vote, remaining one of the last health care holdouts and winning national airtime for his indecision before finally saying he’d oppose the bill. As a result, Jack Shea, a powerful local labor leader, threatened to run a write-in campaign against him, but it never materialized.
“It wasn’t so much the [health care] vote as it was the broken commitment he made to labor,” said Shea. “That was a sharp stick in the eye.”
Still, his opposition to the bill became the centerpiece of his reelection campaign, leaving raw feelings that haven’t completely subsided, multiple Democrats close to the state’s congressional delegation told POLITICO.
Critz, on the other hand, enjoys the luxury of never having to vote on the bill: He first won office last May in a special election after Murtha, his longtime boss, died. Labor groups and the national party directed significant resources toward his campaign — and now see Critz as an investment worth protecting.
“I think it’s a strong likelihood that he carries that support into a primary in 2012,” said Hanna, emphasizing that he’s not yet backing either congressman. “[Altmire’s] got a problem within labor. There’s no denying that.”
With lawmakers almost universally hesitant to talk on the record about redistricting scenarios that haven’t yet come to pass, Altmire’s camp declined several requests for comment.
But the outlines of the case each congressman would make are already beginning to emerge.
“Altmire has the advantage of congressional experience and seniority,” said Hanna, explaining the Altmire argument. “Critz has been in office only one year. Those years of experience matter. Despite what labor says, Altmire has established relationships with [constituents] who will still be in the new district.”
Critz has made clear that he didn’t go through the trouble of a hard-fought special election just to step aside a couple of years later.
“Obviously the district we’d prefer is the one that we already have, but regardless of the way the new map is drawn, Congressman Critz is running for reelection in 2012,” spokesman Matt Mazonkey said.
Geography is also likely to be on Critz’s side. His current seat is the more Democratic-leaning district of the two, and the merger of the two districts would very likely include some of the bluest areas of Critz’s district, including his Johnstown home base.
Republicans, taking the same play-it-safe approach to consolidate gains in Pennsylvania as elsewhere, could ultimately benefit if two Democrats who have branded themselves as conservatives suddenly have to change the script and move too far away from the center.
“You just can’t track very far left in western Pennsylvania and expect not to set yourself up in a general election,” said Brock McCleary, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s deputy political director.
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