Politics & Policy

The Battle for Rural Pennsylvania

A Blue Dog and a Republican fight for a region that’s fed up with Washington.

Glenshaw, Pa. – Joe Laus wants to win a gun. A job would be better, but for now, one of the shiny rifles lying on a plastic table at the front of Moose Lodge #46 is within reach, and he’s prepared to sit here all afternoon, hoping. As the minutes pass, Laus, huddled in the back with his friend Len Gebert, tufts of gray hair poking out from under an orange hunting cap, thumps his knee as the raffle numbers of others are called.

“I’ve been unemployed for over a year and a half,” Laus tells me as fellow lodgers, most clad in Steelers jerseys, line up for sausage and beer. “Nobody wants to hire anybody over the age of 61. Most of my friends who are over 50 can’t find a job.”

Laus, who worked for years in the maintenance business, blames both parties for the recession. “They’re all a bunch of crooks,” he says.

Gebert nods. “Nancy Pelosi passes these bills without reading them,” he sighs. “It’s sad.”

Two years ago, President Obama, speaking at a Democratic fundraiser, famously complained about the frustrations of such men. “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” he said. “It’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

Laus scowls at the mention of Obama. The stimulus and the health-care bill, he says, have done little for Pennsylvania’s steel country. “I don’t like the GOP, but I really don’t like what the Democrats are doing,” he explains, his rough hands clasped. Even though his congressman, two-term Democrat Jason Altmire, voted against Obamacare and has voiced his opposition to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Laus wants to “throw him out.” He wants to elect somebody, anybody, who’s going to “repeal that bill” and cut taxes.

That’s music to the ears of Keith Rothfus, Altmire’s Republican challenger, who hopes to ride the region’s simmering discontent to an upset victory on Tuesday. As he sits on a supporter’s patio a few miles away, stink bugs and fireflies dancing under the overhead lights, Rothfus acknowledges that he faces an uphill climb. A Susquehanna poll released last week shows Altmire up by twelve points, 47 percent to 35 percent. Rothfus shrugs off the numbers. The poll, he notes, also shows that 18 percent of likely voters remain undecided.

Altmire’s congressional district, Pennsylvania’s 4th, stretches from Pittsburgh’s affluent suburbs, with towns such as Fox Chapel, dotted with McMansions, to Mercer County in the north, toward Erie. In between are narrow highways, shadowed by the Allegheny Mountains — and also by battered wheat silos and shuttered mills, the dusty relics of glories past. John McCain won the district with 55 percent of the vote in 2008, President Bush with 54 percent in 2004.

Thanks to Altmire’s maneuvering on the health-care vote, most pundits predict that he will hold onto his seat. Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg rate the contest as leaning toward the Democrat. Altmire, a former health-care lobbyist, has weathered tough races before: He narrowly toppled three-term Republican Melissa Hart in 2006, and kept her from retaking the seat in 2008.

Rothfus, an attorney who’s running his first political campaign, knows that Altmire’s nay vote on Obamacare may be the sandbag that stop the GOP wave from carrying him to victory. But he says that his closing strategy could upend Altmire’s tack to the right. In ads hitting the airwaves this week, Rothfus highlights a video in which Altmire says that repealing Obamacare is “not a viable option.” Pointing out that Altmire is less than committed to repeal, he says, “swings votes,” according to his internal polls.

“Altmire has painted a picture that’s simply not true,” Rothfus says. “When you vote with Nancy Pelosi almost 90 percent of the time, you’re a true liberal.” According to the Washington Post, Altmire has voted with a majority of his Democratic colleagues 88.8 percent of the time during the current Congress. “Cash for Clunkers, bailing out the auto companies, bailing out Fannie and Freddie, sponsoring card check: Altmire is more liberal than George McGovern.”

It’s unclear whether Rothfus’s charges will stick. Even beyond Obamacare, Altmire has positioned himself as a moderate, Blue Dog Midwestern Democrat. He voted against the Wall Street bailout and against cap-and-trade. “He’s not doing a horrible job,” says Joe Wall, a “middle-of-the-road Republican” who is leaning against the back wall of Moose Lodge #46. “But he’s a Democrat in a largely Republican district. That he continues to survive kind of shocks me.”

“He’s had an election-year conversion,” Rothfus says, swatting away my mention of Altmire’s position on the Bush tax cuts. I had pointed out that at a recent debate, Altmire argued that he was “one of only 31 Democrats to urge the speaker not to hold a vote unless it included all of the tax cuts,” and that “this is the wrong time to be raising taxes on any individuals or on small businesses.” Altmire also picked up the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and describes himself as pro-life.

In recent weeks, House GOP leader John Boehner, House GOP whip Eric Cantor, House Republican Conference chairman Mike Pence, Steve Forbes, and others have traveled to western Pennsylvania to stump for Rothfus, who has struggled to raise coin. According to Stephanie Miller, Rothfus’s campaign manager, Altmire has over $500,000 cash on hand, while there’s only about $135,000 in Rothfus’s coffers.

Nevertheless, Rothfus believes his ground game could win him the seat. Earlier this year, he won a contested primary by a two-to-one margin, thanks to Tea Party support, against Mary Beth Buchanan, a prominent former U.S. attorney who is well liked by Washington Republicans. Since then, he tells me, his ranks have swelled, and he now has over 700 volunteers working on his behalf. His campaign has made over 100,000 calls to voters.

Rothfus, who has struggled to generate name recognition, may also be boosted by the candidates at the top of the ticket. Tom Corbett, the state’s Republican attorney general, who is now the frontrunner in the gubernatorial race, hails from the district and has galloped to a large lead in the polls. Pat Toomey, the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, also polls well in the region.

But it’s the national mood that Rothfus is counting on. “This is a district that swings late and fast,” Rothfus says. “That’s what happened to Melissa Hart in 2006, and it’s happening to Altmire now. He was able to tie Hart to Bush, and we’ve been able to show how Altmire is tied to President Obama and Nancy Pelosi.”

Rothfus, who began his career as a systems programmer at IBM before heading off to Notre Dame Law School, is not your typical mad-as-hell tea-party candidate. His voice is quiet, and his bespectacled, low-key look is the opposite of that of Altmire, a strapping former college-football player. But behind Rothfus’s polite demeanor, he promises, is a tough, conservative spine.

In 2006, Rothfus was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix. “December 1, 2006,” he recalls, just one month before his sixth child was due. At the time, his family was living in Washington, D.C., where Rothfus, a Catholic who cites Pope John Paul II as one of his heroes, was working for the Department of Homeland Security, coordinating faith-based groups in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After 18 months filled with chemotherapy, surgery, and worrying about whether he’d beat the cancer — which was advanced — Rothfus recovered. Soon after, he ran his first marathon.

Rothfus says his “work hard, keep your head down” style is winning votes. In this economy, he says, no one wants to elect a posturing politician. Growing up in a middle-class home in Buffalo, N.Y., Rothfus saw firsthand how former industrial towns struggle with a changing economy, and what kind of person is needed to help lead them out of the dark. One such hero was his local congressman, the late Jack Kemp. Same with Ronald Reagan: “I turned 18 in 1980,” he laughs. “The die was cast.”

Rothfus moved to the district in 1997 with his wife, who grew up a few streets away from where we sit. “It’s the same people up there, the same types of businesses,” he says. “Buffalo, I think, fell harder than Pittsburgh. Both are fighting to come back.”

As the campaign hurtles toward its final weekend, Rothfus remains upbeat. Conservative Democrats, Altmire’s base, can be won over, he says. In Westmoreland and Beaver counties, Rothfus sees ample opportunity to peel off “Reagan Democrats,” who, like Joe Laus, remain angry about the Obama agenda. “I am staying focused,” Rothfus says. “It’s about jobs, the debt, and stopping the big-government agenda. We’ve been very effective in trying to bring that message home, talking about those three points.”

“We’re up in no-man’s land right now,” Rothfus continues, as his supporters munch on homemade casserole and brownies inside. “We climbed up out of the trenches last week, and I figured that two weeks out, we’re going for the machine-gunner’s nest on the other side of the fence. They’ll fire bullets at me, but we’re fighting to save the country. We’re giving it all we’ve got. It’ll be a nail-biter.”

If Republicans hope to gain an ample majority in the House, Pennsylvania’s 4th is a district they’ll need to win. Rothfus, for his part, knows the stakes, but he’s not letting the pressure show. “If we win the election, great,” Rothfus tells me as he heads home after a long day on the trail. “If we don’t, I’ll be at home reading books to my kids. But I see what’s unfolding across the country, and I think we’re going to win this.”

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.