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Politics & Government

Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District Feels More Red than Blue

This story was updated Oct. 13, 2014 with comments from Erin McClelland.

Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District does not appear to be as close of a contest as it was back in 2012.

The current race pits incumbent Republican Keith Rothfus against Democrat Erin McClelland – a political newcomer and businesswoman from Westmoreland County. As it stands, Cook Political Report has PA-12 as a “Solid Republican” district with a partisan voting index of R+9.  

A Republican as the clear-cut favorite in PA-12 is quite the departure from 2012, when the race was one of the most competitive in the country. Moreover, the Republican-held seat is a far cry from what PA-12 historically was, which was a bastion of Democratic Party support.

A history of electing Democratic candidates is perhaps why Rothfus is continuing to campaign this fall. “I don’t think it’s a safe district. The registration in the district is 52% Democrat, 38% Republican, 10% Independent.”

Rothfus added, however, “The Democrats tend to be more conservative so it is possible for Republicans to win the seat.”

PA-12 absorbed most of the former PA-4 district thanks to redistricting in 2012, and prior to that both districts had Democratic representatives, Jason Altmire and Mark Critz, respectively. When the districts merged, Critz defeated Altmire in the Democratic primary, effectively splitting the Democratic vote. Critz lost by a close margin to Rothfus, who had previously run and lost in the former PA-4.

The 2012 Critz versus Rothfus general election received heavy national attention, with money flying into the campaign coffers of both candidates. The Democrats feared losing the seat, and the Republicans saw it as another pickup to pad their majority in the House.

When Critz decided not to contest the PA-12 seat and instead ran for Lieutenant Governor – a primary he lost to state Senator Mike Stack – Rothfus’s campaign efforts got quite a “boost.” Critz, due to his name recognition and center-left politics, had the best chance of beating Rothfus in November. There was speculation that he would try another run in PA-12 considering how close the election was in 2012. 

But while Rothfus is considered the favorite by many due to his lack of substantial Democratic competition, the Congressman says it has been his first term efforts that have set him apart from his competitor.

“I don’t know if there is a member of Congress, frankly, who has held more open constituent forums than I have,” Rothfus said. “It has been really gratifying for me to get out to every single community and have this ability to meet with my bosses.”

Rothfus emphasized “it is the people who are the boss,” and that he has to be constantly engaged with his constituents. “I think [PA-12] is one of those classic swing districts that you have to be constantly out there talking to people that are your boss – the people who through their hard work and tax dollars are paying your salary.”

Democrat Erin McClelland, on the other hand, sees Rothfus’s constituent outreach efforts as largely ineffective. “You have a lot of people who do not know who he [Rothfus] is,” she said.

McClelland feels good about her chances in the general. She points out that PA-12’s Democratic primary received more votes than any other of the congressional primaries, and she sees the Democratic majority in the district as more enthusiastic than it is given credit for.

“I’ve been really excited about what we have seen on the ground, especially in that primary, and we have no doubt that that is going to translate well into the general.”

PA-12 was a historically Democratic district when it was held by Representative John Murtha for 36 years beginning in 1974. Democrat Critz, who was a top aid to Murtha, took over after Murtha’s death in 2010.

Then, in 2012, Critz lost by a slim margin to Rothfus in the general election.

That loss has led to a rapid change in the general perception of this district.   

PA-12, shaped like a hammer cutting through the Western portion of the state, appears to be Rothfus’s district to lose – quite the departure from what once was a Democratic-dominated district.