As an underdog even in his own polling, U.S. Rep. Mark Critz has some complex formulas running through his head these days.
The Johnstown Democrat needs generally low voter turnout in the 12th Congressional District primary, coupled with higher-than-expected turnout in Cambria and Somerset counties. He’s also counting on a strategically placed boost from union supporters.
“If you’re within 5 percent, you win it on the ground,” Critz said last week.
“That’s how you do it. You get your people out.”
But Critz’s opponent, U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, doesn’t need a calculator when he looks toward Election Day: He sees a clear numerical advantage in the new 12th district.
“Sixty-six percent of the population of the combined district are my current constituents, 27 percent are his,” Altmire said. “And the only way (Critz) wins is by breaking into my territory in the primary. And if we just hold our own folks, we win.”
So when voters go to the polls on April 24, a months-long campaign spurred by a geographical shift in district lines may come down to simple geography.
Though Altmire lost his 4th district in last year’s Republican-led rejigging of the state’s congressional boundaries, the new 12th district has plenty of voters who already are familiar with the Pittsburgh-area Democrat.
Altmire is calculating that such familiarity is vital in a race where both candidates acknowledge their many similarities:
They are socially conservative Democrats who, in debates and interviews last week, affirmed their anti-abortion stance; their backing of the coal and natural-gas industries; their commitment to veterans’ causes; and their dedication to preserving Social Security and Medicare.
The few disagreements between the two hinged on relatively minor matters including Altmire’s vote for a GOP-backed balanced-budget amendment and Critz’s vote to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
So it has fallen to Critz to push westward into new territory, trying to convince voters there that they should support a first-term congressman from Johnstown rather than a three-term lawmaker who lives and is based in Allegheny and Beaver counties, respectively.
Critz opened a Beaver County campaign office earlier this month and claims to have made some inroads there.
“I have people coming up to me all the time going, ‘Oh, you’re Mark Critz. You know, we’re not very happy with Jason Altmire.’ This is out of the blue,” Critz said. “It’s unusual to get people coming up to you volunteering how unhappy they are with their current member. And it’s about, ‘Jason’s not the same guy we sent to Congress.’”
Altmire dubbed that “good rhetoric” but scoffed at his opponent’s assertion.
“All I can tell you is, I won the endorsement of the Democratic Party in Beaver County 118 to 16. That’s 88 percent of the vote,” Altmire said.
“So those are the activists. Those are the people who live and breathe Democratic politics. Those are people who Mark worked very hard to court, to introduce himself to over a course of months. And 118 to 16 is a pretty big number.”
Altmire also won backing from Democratic leaders in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. The only other formal party endorsement went to Critz in Cambria County.
But Critz also has heavily promoted his near-unanimous backing from organized labor including the United Steelworkers, United Mine Workers, Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO.
Critz says polling – which has shown him anywhere from 7 points to 24 points behind Altmire – has not taken into account the union campaigns on his behalf. For example, he said, there are 100,000 AFL-CIO members in the 12th district.
“With the AFL-CIO, it brings that ground game,” Critz said.
“And that’s where we’re going to win – not only here, but we are going to have some good numbers out his way.”
Critz also believes union support – which he has attributed in part to his opposition to free-trade agreements and his outspokenness on Chinese currency manipulation – can overcome his persistently falling short of Altmire in campaign fundraising.
“You need more money when you have no organization. (Altmire) has none,” Critz said.
“Labor got him elected in ‘06. Labor got him elected in ‘08. Labor pulled him through in 2010. They’re not with him anymore, so he has no infrastructure in place.”
However, Altmire contends union leaders are “settling what they perceive to be an old score” because he voted against the controversial health-care reform bill promoted by President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders.
“They attempted to field an opponent against me in 2010. The timing wasn’t such that they were able to coordinate that,” Altmire said. “And they have been waiting two years to run a primary against me. I would suggest their support is not at all about Mark Critz.”
He also contends union endorsements won’t mean much on primary day.
“I think I’m going to get the bulk of working families’ votes because I have a good story on the record in Congress that I’ve put together over my three terms,” Altmire said. “I think, if you look at the voting record that I have versus the voting record of Mark, I have a very good story to tell.”
Altmire said he has made an effort to tell that story on Critz’s turf, saying he has run two television ads in the Johnstown market and has “tried to meet as many community leaders as I possibly can.”
At the same time, he has been cautious in an area that has been represented by a hometown congressman since the 1940s.
“My goal is to be your congressman – to represent this area. So I’m looking at it as I’m building relationships. I realize this is a first impression,” Altmire said. “I don’t want people here in Johnstown to look at this campaign as I’m coming in to knock out your congressman. Mark and I did not ask for this situation.”
Nonetheless, the campaign represents – as Altmire noted in a debate last week – a game of musical chairs for the two Democrats.
“There’s only one seat, and on April 24th, the music is going to stop,” he said.
The legislator apparently is confident enough in his record that he pledges to maintain a string of nearly 4,600 consecutive votes in the House, though that means he’ll be unable to keep a heavy campaign schedule in the race’s final days.
“I’m not going to miss votes. So I’m going to be in Washington doing the job I was elected to do even on Election Day,” Altmire said. “I’m going to vote that morning and go back to Washington.”
Critz, however, contends that Altmire simply has “conceded” Cambria and Somerset counties.
“He doesn’t want to come up here and hit me, because it excites my base,” Critz said.
“So he’s playing this cat-and-mouse game where he thinks he’s got the numbers. We feel otherwise.”