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Congressman Keith Rothfus could be in danger as three Democratic challengers step up

“The Left is so angry that I even have 3 liberal opponents who have announced their campaigns to defeat me.”

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On May 11, U.S. Congressman Keith Rothfus (R-Sewickley) sent out an email to his supporters asking for assistance and campaign donations. He seemed nervous.

“Last week I voted to repeal and replace Obamacare — fulfilling a promise I made to you.” wrote Rothfus from his campaign email address. “But now liberals and the media are attacking me! The Left is so angry that I even have 3 liberal opponents who have announced their campaigns to defeat me.”

It’s hard to assess exactly how under-attack Rothfus is; the nonpartisan Cook Political Report still grades his district as safely Republican. But his email is right about one thing: a new energy has emerged among liberals in Pennsylvania’s U.S. House 12th District, leading three of them to start campaigns. Democrats Aaron Anthony, of Shaler; Tom Prigg, of McCandless; and Beth Tarasi, of Sewickley, have announced candidacies to challenge Rothfus in the 2018 midterm elections.

So far, they’ve all pledged to back many Democratic platforms, like LGBT- and immigrant-rights, environmentalism, pay equity and support for labor unions. But each offers unique viewpoints and campaign strategies that could turn the 12th District blue.  

Anthony, a 34-year-old former school-teacher and current Ph.D. student in educational studies, understands flipping the 12th District isn’t going to be easy. Rothfus won last year by 23 percentage points, but Anthony believes the race “is part of the bigger movement to flip [U.S.] Congress” to Democratic control. Thus, Anthony wants to create a message that resonates nationally, and doing that requires a lot of cash. 

“Our goal is to raise $75,000 in the second quarter of 2017,” says Anthony. “It’s going to take at least $2.5 million to be competitive in this race.”

According to campaign-finance reports, Rothfus raised $223,000 in the first quarter of 2017, and currently has $766,000 cash on hand. Anthony has already assembled a team of friends and supporters from across the country to raise campaign funds, and has held events in Philadelphia and Chicago. 

While he has lived and worked in Shaler most of his life, Anthony says fundraising must come from inside and outside the district to compete with Rothfus. (In the first quarter of 2017, about half of Rothfus’ donations came from outside the 12th District, according to campaign-finance reports.)

Anthony says he was naive in thinking President Donald Trump would lose the 2016 election, but that result motivated him to run. “We are old enough to stop waiting for the older generation to fix it,” says Anthony. He says his campaign will focus on increasing funding for education, poverty programs and drug treatment to combat the opioid epidemic.

Another challenger, Tom Prigg, believes he can relate to the rural parts of the 12th District. Originally from a rural part of Washington County, Prigg says his grandparents worked in the steel mills, and he grew up baling hay. Prigg thinks his working-class upbringing, along with his four years in the U.S. Army as a sniper, provides contrast to Rothfus’ background as a corporate lawyer. He’s confident he can win the 12th District’s substantial veteran vote (census figures show 10 percent of the voting-age population are veterans).

Prigg, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University, plans to focus his campaign on areas in economic decline; he says grants can be given to small businesses to keep them open. “We already give enough tax breaks to corporations, we should be giving those to the communities,” says Prigg.

Prigg says he was first politically inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement and has thought about running for office since. Prigg says he would try to get subsidized trade schools to move into rural regions, ones that “target future jobs” and teach students how to code. Prigg has already started a blog on Daily Kos, a liberal political website, and his seven-member campaign team will focus on a wide-ranging media campaign.

Prigg says he wants to garner the votes of 12th District independents who normally vote Republican, and not just run an anti-Rothfus campaign. “That is like hitting on a girl in a bar by saying, ‘I am the only one talking to you,’” says Prigg. “It doesn’t work.” 

The third challenger, Beth Tarasi, is a lawyer from Sewickley who has lived in the 12th District her entire life. She too felt she “had to run” after the election of Trump. She says the district isn’t being properly represented by Rothfus. 

“He’s not bringing in anything,” says Tarasi. “Allegheny County is attracting new businesses, but we need to see that spread all over the district. We need to take advantage of our natural resources.”

Rothfus recently announced Corsa Coal, in Somerset County, was adding 70 jobs, but Tarasi points out the company is simply replacing some lost jobs, as Corsa cut 130 jobs in 2015.

Tarasi would like to see more investments like the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, as well as green energy like wind farms. “As a lawyer, this is what I do,” says Tarasi. “I bring in resources in to solve problems.” 

She serves as a Democratic ward chair in Sewickley and says she can succeed with help from Western Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party institutions. 

If elected, Tarasi would want to be placed on the transportation committee because she believes the 12th District needs infrastructure improvements to move forward. 

She adds that she wants to serve constituents as if they were her legal clients. “Rothfus says he is the employee of constituents,” says Tarasi. “I think they are more like clients, and I want to keep the clients happy.”


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