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Raising visibility a task for Critz, Rothfus

They might want to get name tags.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Critz and Republican lawyer Keith Rothfus concede they’re not well-known in large swaths of the reconfigured 12th District, and said winning the seat in November will require changing that.

Above-average turnout and gargantuan vote margins close to home in Cambria and Somerset counties propelled Critz, 50, of Johnstown to a 2-percentage-point primary victory on Tuesday over Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless. But Altmire won Beaver and Allegheny counties, showing Critz isn’t well-known in the area where most voters live in the new district.

Critz said he’s going to repeat his former boss’s strategy. In 2002, Republicans created a district that pitted then-Rep. John Murtha of Johnstown against fellow Democrat Frank Mascara. Murtha spent months getting to know the swath of the redrawn district before defeating Mascara, Critz said.

“That’s just the model I’m going to use. What I have to do is just step up and start doing it,” said Critz, an aide who won office after Murtha’s unexpected death in 2010.

Similarly, Rothfus, 50, of Edgeworth believes he can win if he boosts his name recognition in Critz’s backyard.

“The general population doesn’t know me yet in Cambria and Somerset (counties),” said Rothfus, a conservative who upset the Republican establishment’s candidate in the 2010 primary and narrowly lost to Altmire. “But I’ve been out probably a dozen times over the last three months.”

Rothfus plans to move inside the border of the district. His home on Quaker Road in Edgeworth sits about 1,000 feet from the new line. He said he has a home under contract in nearby Sewickley Village, inside the district. Members of Congress must live in the state they represent, but not the district.

The presidential election in November will likely bring much higher voter turnout than the 20 percent of Democrats who voted this week in Allegheny County and the 34 percent who voted in Cambria County.

Each candidate believes there’s opportunity.

President Obama lost Altmire’s and Critz’s districts in 2008. Rothfus said he intends to try to link Critz to the president and “big government” policies. When talking to voters, he brings up $4-a-gallon gas, an unemployment rate above 8 percent and Environmental Protection Agency regulation.

“This is an area known for its independence and its skepticism of big government,” Rothfus said.

Critz’s last GOP opponent, Tim Burns of Eighty Four, tried the same thing in the special and general elections of 2010, and lost both times, Critz said.

“Democrats in this part of the state are unlike Democrats in the rest of the country,” said Heath Long, chairman of the Cambria County Democratic Party. “Our Democrats, in the past, have always been able to distinguish” between national candidates and local candidates.

On Tuesday, Critz got about 600 more votes than Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, and nearly 2,000 more than Obama in Cambria County. Critz won 91 percent of the Cambria County vote and 87 percent in Somerset County. The disparity suggests voters went to the polls to help Critz, whose supporters concentrated on his home turf.

“In Johnstown, they take it very seriously that their congressman has been from there since World War II,” said Altmire, who pledged to support Critz in the general election. “He did a great job of getting out the vote.”

Critz’s win “represented a rebirth of the power of the union endorsement,” said Gerald Shuster, professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh.

“We can’t always do as much as we did for Critz,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the AFL-CIO’s Pennsylvania chapter. But in close elections, “what we can do is push someone over the finish line, and that’s what we did for Critz.”

“You have this whole new part of the district where folks need to get to know (Critz),” Bloomingdale said.

One of Altmire’s core arguments was that those voters know him and elected him three times.

“I really believe the battle is going to be in Allegheny County. That’s where the population is. That’s where a lot of the swing voters are,” Altmire said.

In 2008, Obama won Allegheny County by 100,000 votes.


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