There's one thing that Democrat Jason Altmire wants you to know about his Congressional campaign:
"We can win."
And that's been the most surprising twist in this race for the 4th Congressional District -- which includes all of Beaver and Lawrence counties, northern Allegheny County, and portions of three other counties nearby.
Since being elected to Congress in 2000, Republican incumbent Melissa Hart has faced token opposition in her last two re-election battles. And Altmire, a former lobbyist with UPMC, has struggled just to be taken seriously. In recent weeks, however, he has touted an internal poll showing him within four points of Hart. Although internal polling often tells candidates what they want to hear, national leaders in both parties are taking the race seriously.
In fact, while Altmire says he's had pledges of support from Democrats nationwide, "I really knew we were for real last week" -- when the Republican Party's national apparatus began airing ads that criticized Altmire as pro-taxes.
Altmire opposes tax cuts for the wealthy when the government is running sizable deficits. But he sees an unintended message in the ad.
"Hart already has a tremendous cash advantage over me," Altmire observes. (Federal records show Hart has raised more than $1.7 million as of Oct. 20, to Altmire's roughly $600,000.) "So that shows you they're concerned."
Local Republicans tell City Paper that the GOP has long kept a wary eye on Hart's district, in part because Democrats outnumber Republicans, who make up 39 percent of the district. Hart campaign manager Luke Myslinski says that if anything, the national party's interest reflects confidence: Federal election rules prohibit candidates from sharing strategy with national campaign committees, he notes, but "based on what I'm reading, the national party is trying to shore up what they think are the safe districts, rather than the competitive ones."
Even so, the tempo has clearly increased in recent days, and Altmire's campaign is carefully tailored to a district made up of rural voters, conservative suburbanites and Rust Belt Reagan Democrats. Altmire has pledged to oppose new restrictions on gun ownership, and like Hart he is anti-choice. Still, he's less hostile to reproductive rights than Hart, who has opposed over-the-counter sales of the "morning-after pill."
And while locals may see UPMC as part of the problem with our health-care system, Altmire cites his work there as expertise he will bring to solving the nation's spiraling health-care costs.
Mostly, however, he has attacked Hart for carrying water for the Bush Administration, especially where the war in Iraq is concerned. He has also castigated her for supporting free-trade agreements, which he contends hurt working people in the district.
So far, Hart has replied by saying ... well, not much, really. She's refused to debate Altmire. Myslinski says a schedule conflict preempted one debate, and Hart refused to participate in one sponsored by the League of Women Voters because "Jason is a former member there." But Hart's campaign also declined a third debate whose sponsoring organization, the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce, has ties to a Hart campaign staffer. Altmire has offered to debate anyway, but Myslinski says, "If we did really well in the debate, he'd say it was rigged. We aren't putting ourselves out there like that."
Hart has aired ads that, in addition to touting her support of the new Medicare drug benefit for seniors, accuse Altmire of lying about her record. An Altmire ad claims Hart has voted with the Bush Administration 98 percent of the time, and cites the journal Congressional Quarterly as a source. "But even Jon Delano on KDKA says that number is nowhere in there," Myslinski says. (True, but Delano also reported that CQ rated Hart's support of Bush from between 88 and 100 percent in each of her five years in Congress.)
Political consultant Don Friedman, a staunch Democrat, is dubious about Altmire's chances. Despite the party's national troubles, he says, Hart has done a good job keeping touch with her local constituency. "D.C. is taking a lot of interest in Jason, but these pollsters keep asking voters about 'Democrat versus Republican.' That's not the same as going into the ballot box and pulling the lever against Missy Hart."
Altmire, naturally, disagrees with that forecast. But one thing is certain, he says: "It's going to get ugly in these last couple weeks."