2012-04-19 / Local & State

Heated Primary Battles In PA Congressional Races

By Kevin Begos

PITTSBURGH (AP) – In November Republicans and Democrats will battle for control of Congress, but the biggest fights in Pennsylvania's April 24 primary are among members of the same political party.

In the newly created 12th District north and east of Pittsburgh, Democratic U.S. Reps. Jason Altmire and Mark Critz are fighting to be the last one standing after the Legislature and governor approved a redistricting law combining their previously separate districts.

Not far away in the 18th District, mostly south of Pittsburgh, Republican Rep. Tim Murphy is facing a spirited challenge from Evan Feinberg in his bid for the GOP nod.

The 4th District in central Pennsylvania is the only district where no incumbent is running, due to the planned retirement of GOP Rep. Todd Platts. Seven Republicans and two Democrats are competing there.

Currently, Republicans occupy 12 of the state’s 19 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, but the state lost one seat because others had more population growth – leaving only 18 seats this year.

The primary battles provide a glimpse into what may be the dominant theme of this year's elections: do voters want candidates at the center of the political spectrum, or more to the left or right?

Altmire, 44, and Critz, 40, are behaving more like lifelong enemies than congressmen who have worked together in Washington.

Critz tried to get his fellow Democrat kicked off the primary ballot with a lawsuit challenging the petition signatures Altmire's staff had collected, but a judge ruled in Altmire's favor.

Much of the district is Altmire's home turf, and pundits gave him an early advantage. Critz is from Johnstown. But the state AFL-CIO endorsed Critz and could play a big role in his campaign.

Altmire proudly casts himself as middle-of-the-road, with his campaign claiming that he “has repeatedly been recognized as one of the most centrist, politically moderate members” of the House. First elected in 1996, he has also been active in veterans' affairs.

Critz was first elected to the House in early 2010 to serve the remainder of Rep. John Murtha’s term after he died. That fall, Critz won a full two-year term.

Critz had been a longtime staff member for Murtha, a powerful politician who represented Pennsylvania for 34 years in Congress.

William J. Green, a veteran political consultant based in Pittsburgh, said Critz's experience could be vital in the primary battle. “I don’t think you can discount his time as chief of staff” to Murtha, Green said. “The other thing is, he has enthusiastic voters.”

Neither candidate is known for extreme statements, Green noted.

Not far away, in the 18th District, Republican Rep. Tim Murphy is facing a spirited challenge from Evan Feinberg.

Murphy, 59, has served five terms in Congress, representing a diverse district where Democrats hold a slight majority.

Feinberg, a 28-year-old former staffer to conservative members of Congress, says Murphy isn’t conservative enough.

Feinberg has attracted some significant financial support from national conservative groups, but Murphy has raised much more money overall.

Green says the primary could turn into a real battle, but that Feinberg's appeal to conservative voters may not translate into success in the 18th District.

Feinberg has released a plan calling for $661 billion in spending cuts next year. It would eliminate four federal agencies – the Departments of Education, Commerce, Housing and Energy, and cut $100 billion from defense spending.

“It’s just so draconian. It gets everybody's attention, but the devil is in the details. It's a heavy Democratic district,” Green said.

Feinberg also wants to eliminate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and cut all funding for the United Nations, and eventually have the U.S. withdraw from that organization.

Murphy has attracted support from conservative groups too, including Citizens Against Higher Taxes and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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