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.”
“He can be for guns, for pro-life,” said Regina McCarthy, a 59-year-old mother and Democrat from Wexford. “But I was upset when he distanced himself from Barack Obama. Because really and truly, his best chances are when Barack Obama leads from the top of the ticket.”
No matter how much Critz shows his independent streak, he still needs Obama to perform well with his base in this district. That’s because there’s one thing both Congressional candidates agree on: This race will be won by the slimmest of margins. Both Democrats and Republicans estimate a 4-point race.
“I have no idea how this is going to go,” Rothfus said walking out of a local GOP picnic in scenic North Park. “You just work hard and hope that does it.”
The presidential campaigns aren’t playing in the local media market, but themes of the national race permeate through the 12th district contest.
Democrats have made an issue of Rothfus’ wealth, calling him a “millionaire Wall Street lawyer.” It feeds into the same class-based apprehension that makes southwestern Pennsylvania voters hesitant to support Mitt Romney no matter how much they despise the president.
“I have questions about him,” said Ed Patterson, a 91-year-old registered Republican, referring to Rothfus. ”I think he’s one of the wealthy guys.”
Rothfus pre-empted these attacks, presenting himself in his TV ads as a “regular guy” who drives his kids to school and plays mini-golf on the weekends. He reminds a Republican meet-and-greet at V.F.W. Post 92 that he works “not on Wall Street — on Stanwix Street,” a downtown Pittsburgh thoroughfare.
“He’s not your stereotypical candidate who needs to be the center or attention or gives thunderous speeches,” said Vince Galko, a GOP operative in Pennsylvania. “In some of his ads, he’s actually made use of that.”
Rothfus, too, has evolved as a candidate. In 2010, national Republicans mostly overlooked the brainy attorney when he lost to Rep. Jason Altmire (D) by 3,700 votes. Two years later, Rothfus still runs as an outsider — but he’s much smarter about it.
While Critz emphasizes his conservative positions, the Rothfus message is about bipartisanship. He compares reaching across the aisle to contract negotiations. He’s quick to tie his opponent to the national party, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“You can’t be pro-Pelosi and pro-life,” Rothfus said. “You can’t be pro-Pelosi and pro-Second Amendment. He does have a 60 percent [voting record] with National Right to Life. I don’t know about you, but when I was in school, if I got a 60 percent of the grade — not that I ever did — I got an ‘F.’”
Critz’s progression as a candidate is twofold: He’s focused more on his conservative positions as his district moved west and right. And he’s completed the transition from accidental Congressman to tested campaigner.
When Critz announced his bid for the special election in 2010, there were 32,000 miles on his blue Dodge Grand Caravan. He won the general election later that year 51 percent to 49 percent. In the April primary, Critz upset Altmire by a similar margin.
Today, his odometer clocks in at 140,000.
“Number four in two years is taxing,” Critz said before taking his first sip of coffee Sunday morning. “This year has been ... interesting.”
Would he do it all over again? He paused four seconds.
“I question, sometimes,” he said. “We’re winning, I can feel that. But there’s three plus weeks until the election. And they’re just bashing my brains in right now.”
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