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Pa. Rep. Holden loses; Critz tops Altmire

Genaro C. Armas

U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, the dean of the Pennsylvania's House delegation, lost his re-election bid in a Democratic primary race in a newly redrawn district Tuesday, and U.S. Rep. Mark Critz won a hotly contested congressional primary against fellow Democratic incumbent Rep. Jason Altmire.

The congressional district lines reconfigured by the Republican-controlled state Legislature played key roles in each high-profile race.

Holden, who was elected to Congress in 1992 and was one of its conservative, so-called Blue Dog Democrats, lost to personal injury attorney Matt Cartwright, who spent nearly $400,000 of his own money in the race.

Asked to assess the reasons by his victory, Cartwright said "It's a combination of things, number one, the redistricting, and number two, my own core political beliefs are a much better fit for the new district."

Cartwright won 57 percent to 43 percent.

"This is Matt Cartwright's night and he ran a good race," Holden said in a statement issued through his campaign spokesman, Eric Nagy.

Cartwright's campaign hit Holden with allegations that he was too conservative for the district's voters, citing his vote against President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

But Cartwright also benefited from the new congressional district boundaries redrawn by the Republican-controlled state Legislature to give reconfigured tens of thousands more Democrats and the newly added cities of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Easton _ areas unfamiliar to Holden.

Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 24 percentage points in the new district, where as the GOP held a four-point registration edge in Holden's current district. Those voters supported a member of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition in Washington, which includes moderate and conservative Democrats lobbying for greater fiscal responsibility.

The new boundaries apparently left Holden vulnerable among a new crop of voters. Only about one-quarter of the new district is currently represented by Holden.

"It was definitely a bigger obstacle than we had originally anticipated," Nagy said about redistricting.

Cartwright, 50, had name recognition in the important Scranton media market after long running ads for his Moosic law firm. He has proudly called himself "an old-school Roosevelt Democrat."

National interest groups have also run ads on behalf of Cartwright, including a League of Conservation Voters campaign that cited what it called Holden's poor environmental record.

Holden had the support of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Scranton native, as well as the mayors of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Easton.

It didn't matter against Cartwright. Nagy said a combination of redistricting, Cartwright's fundraising and interest group support, coupled with an anti-incumbent sentiment throughout the country created a "perfect storm" against Holden.

Holden faced a similar challenge following the last round of redistricting a decade ago, but got a close win over his Republican opponent in the general election. He couldn't pull off another tight victory on Tuesday night, falling in his bid for an 11th term.

Cartwright will face Scranton tea party activist Laureen Cummings in the fall. Cummings, a nurse and small business owner from Old Forge, was the only Republican on the primary ballot. Nagy said Holden pledged his support to Cartwright when calling to concede.

Critz topped Altmire to become the Democratic nominee in the newly created 12th Congressional District north and east of Pittsburgh.

The 44-year-old Altmire and 40-year-old Critz were like-minded Democrats before the Legislature and governor approved a redistricting law combining their previously separate districts. It was one of the few congressional contests nationally this primary season pitting sitting House incumbents due to redistricting, so the tense campaign drew interest from political observers.

Like Holden, Altmire was a Democratic Blue Dog Coalition member. He drew support from small businesses and the ire of unions for his vote against the federal health care overhaul in 2010.

Altmire was seen as a favorite in the race early on. About two-thirds of the new district is already represented by Altmire under the old boundary lines, a demographic advantage Altmire hoped would help carry him to victory.

But Critz was buoyed by strong support from unions including the United Steelworkers, key endorsements in blue-collar western Pennsylvania. The former top aide to his powerful predecessor, the late Rep. John Murtha, was also endorsed by former President Bill Clinton.

Critz attracted heavy support from organized labor and closed the gap in recent weeks. He will face Republican lawyer Keith Rothfus in the November election after beating Altmire 52 to 48.

"Obviously at the beginning no one gave us a chance. We just kept working at it," Critz said. "With the help of labor, we were able to make inroads in the new parts of the district."

Altmire won 70 percent of the vote in Allegheny County, which he currently represents, but lost 91 to 9 in Critz's power base of Johnstown and Cambria County. Johnstown was new ground for Altmire.

"What turned the tide in the race was the performance in Johnstown. It's not as though they came into my district and turned my constituents against me," Altmire said. "I'm completely at peace with what occurred. Mark deserves to win and Johnstown turned out for him."

Two other western Pennsylvania incumbents won their primaries. Rep. Tim Murphy beat challenger Evan Feinberg in a GOP race, winning by 63 to 37.

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

Also, Rep. Mike Doyle easily turned away a Democratic primary challenge, beating Janis Brooks, a pastor and head of a local youth program. Doyle will seek a 10th term this November representing his Pittsburgh-area district after taking 80 percent of the vote.

The Associated Press