PITTSBURGH — U.S. Rep. Mark Critz has spent much of his two-plus years in Congress fighting to keep the seat he won in a special election after his former boss, Democratic powerhouse John Murtha, died in office in 2010.
Now he's fighting to keep the seat in a redrawn western Pennsylvania district that tends to vote Republican despite containing a slim majority of registered Democrats, against a candidate strongly backed by the national GOP and conservative groups, Keith Rothfus.
The race is close enough that the national parties and independent political action committees have been running ads in heavy rotation on Pittsburgh-area TV stations.
The ads favoring Critz have stressed his more conservative beliefs: he's gotten the NRA endorsement in the race; his pro-military views (his former boss, Murtha, was the powerful chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee), and his anti-abortion stance.
Rothfus scoffs at the last label, noting Critz received a 60 percent rating from the National Right to Life group. "When I was in school, 60 percent was an F," Rothfus said.
Critz noted he's voted to end federal funding to Planned Parenthood, though he first voted against a similar bill. Both were defeated in the Senate. Rothfus counters that Critz's backing of the federal health care overhaul undercuts Critz's anti-abortion claims.
For his part, Critz slams Rothfus' support of the budget plan put forth by Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan and its call for altering Medicare by offering it as one of several options in the future.
Rothfus counters that the Ryan plan doesn't end Medicare — as Critz and some Democrats claim — but is meant to save it from going bankrupt. Rothfus noted the claim by Democrats that voting for Ryan's plan would "end Medicare" was labeled last year as the "lie of the year" by the political fact-checking website PolitiFact.
Despite the sniping at each other, both Critz and Rothfus are ideal candidates for the relatively conservative 12th District, said Jon Delano, a veteran western Pennsylvania political analyst and reporter for KDKA-TV. Their biggest differences are on issues of free trade, Medicare and the health care overhaul.
As to the other rhetoric, Delano said the candidates are doing what politicians have always done — highlighting their differences so the public will seem to have a clearer choice.
"But unlike businesses that offer a product or service that are bound by truth-in-advertising laws, there is no such rule in politics," Delano said.
The new 12th District, created by Republican-controlled redistricting, stretches to the Ohio border. It's 52 percent Democrat by voter registration totals "but Republicans traditionally win here," said Delano.
He pointed to President Barack Obama's loss by 9 percentage points in the 2008 election in the portions of six southwestern Pennsylvania counties that now make up the district.
Critz, a former aide to Murtha, had won his seat in a special election to fill Murtha's remaining term in May 2010 and won a new-two year term that November, both times against an upset-minded tea party candidate, Tim Burns. Critz beat Burns in the general election by less than 1 percent of the vote.
"This is my fourth race in two years," Critz said. "It seems like at every turn the Republicans are trying to take this seat."
Now, it's Rothfus' turn.
In 2010, Rothfus, a corporate attorney from the Pittsburgh suburbs who had also worked for President George W. Bush's Department of Homeland Security, won the Republican nomination in the 4th District and narrowly lost to U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire.
Since then, the 4th district was folded into Critz's 12th, and added portions of Beaver and Lawrence counties.
The redistricting forced the incumbents Critz and Altmire to run against each other in the May primary, and Critz eked out a win, 51 to 49 percent.