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MURRYSVILLE, Pa. — Rep. Mark Critz (D) receives a few skeptical looks as he greets the hundreds of Second Amendment enthusiasts filing into Sunday’s Gun Bash at the Crowfoot Sportsman’s Club.
In most of the country, a six-hour gun raffle marks uncomfortable territory for Democrats. But this is exurban southwestern Pennsylvania, where rifles rule local politics and the Gun Bash is a local ballistic delicacy.
“I hope you win a gun or something,” Critz says as he shakes hands.
“No-Bama!” replies Brian Strohmeier, 56, a registered Republican.
Once known as the late Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) sidekick, Critz is now one of the most campaign-tested Members of Congress. Next month, he faces his fourth multimillion-dollar race in two and a half years — and it’s his toughest yet.
More than half of the 12th district is new to Critz, and it’s more conservative than his current territory, thanks to the Republican-led redraw of the Keystone State’s Congressional map. Republicans are making their third concerted attempt to win the seat, investing millions in the district to boost their nominee, attorney Keith Rothfus.
But Critz’s biggest challenge comes from his own party. For the first time, he runs on the same ticket as President Barack Obama, who is widely panned by voters here. “He’s going to get creamed in my district,” said a bleary-eyed Critz over coffee at Dick’s Diner on Sunday morning. “He’s going to lose by anywhere from 7 to 10 percent. There’s no coattail there at all. I’m carrying the ticket in the 12th district.”
The feeling might as well be mutual. Four years ago, Obama described rural Pennsylvanians as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion.”
On this sunny October Sunday, residents aren’t clinging to their guns. They are clinging to their plastic jugs of Yuengling and Coors Light while they buy $2 raffle tickets. There’s a gun winner at least every 15 minutes.
Sam Rugh, a Critz supporter, anticipated there might be a few doubters in the crowd. So he brought a Johnstown Tribune-Democrat newspaper clip proclaiming Critz as the National Rifle Association’s endorsed candidate in the Congressional race. But the skeptics persist.
“He believes in pro-life, pro-gun. But why is he following Obama blindly?” asked Joann Cepko, an angry 69-year-old lifetime Democrat. “I didn’t vote for Obama the last time. I’m not going to vote for him this time.”
Cepko isn’t alone. Obama would have lost the redrawn 12th district in 2008 by 9 points — even though Democrats held a small voter registration advantage. This cycle, Democrats estimate Critz survives if Obama keeps his losing margin to 10-12 points in this district.
That’s why Critz criticizes the president in his TV spots, attacking his Environmental Protection Agency policies. The “Mark Critz, Democrat for Congress” yard signs from the primary have conspicuously dropped the word “Democrat.”