If you happen to live in District 12, which ranges from Johnstown to the North Hills and Lawrence County, you are facing one of the toughest decisions in this election. Republican lawyer Keith Rothfus and incumbent Democrat Mark Critz, who won the seat after the death of his former boss John Murtha, share a lot of the same views. Both oppose gay-marriage rights and both favor defunding Planned Parenthood — even though federal funding for the agency is not spent on abortion.
Even the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, that bastion of conservative values, found it hard to draw a distinction. The paper's editorial page deemed either candidate a "perfectly acceptable choice."
But there are differences, if you look closely.
Critz has received the endorsement of the NRA. But Rothfus was also given a rating of "AQ," meaning he is in line with the group's ideals, but lacked a legislative record. Rothfus was endorsed, however, by the even more conservative Gun Owners of America. Critz is also anti-choice, though he supports abortion rights in extreme cases of rape, incest or when the health or life of the mother is at stake.
Rothfus has taken an even harder line. When he was endorsed in 2010 by the Republican National Coalition for Life, he indicated he was "pro-life without discrimination." Not surprisingly, Planned Parenthood has not endorsed either candidate. However, there have been no announced pro-life endorsements, either.
The pledge to repeal Barack Obama's 2009 health-care reform has been a GOP battle cry, and Rothfus has been part of the chorus. "We have to repeal Obamacare. ... Gov. Romney is committed to putting the $700 billion back into Medicare and I support that," Rothfus said at an Oct. 16 debate. The claim that the reforms raid Medicare, which provides health care to seniors, has been trumpeted by Republicans nationwide. But independent fact-checkers like Politifact say it isn't true: "[The ACA] does not literally cut funding from the Medicare program's budget." Instead, it reflects projected savings from reduced health-care costs. Repealing the reforms could even worsen Medicare's finances: Without the anticipated savings, and a tax on high-income Americans that goes into effect in 2013, Democrats warn the fund could become insolvent as early as 2016.
Critz's position on Obama's reforms is more complicated. He says he opposes some parts of the law, like the individual mandate that requires everyone to carry insurance or face a tax penalty. But he says he would seek a bipartisan effort to tweak the reforms, while preserving the protection of patients with pre-existing conditions, the ability for young people to stay on their parents' insurance and the closure of Medicare's "donut hole" that will help seniors pay for their medications.
Rothfus has largely avoided discussing budget proposals in detail. At an August press conference, for example, he declined to say whether he would have voted for draconian budgets proposed by vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan because "I was not there," but did call them "hard-hitting." When asked directly at an Oct. 16 debate if he supported any budget plan, Rothfus didn't answer directly, instead speaking in generalities about how the U.S. "borrows 42 cents of every dollar" it spends and how spending cuts are needed. Rothfus does, however, support extending the Bush-era tax cuts — including tax breaks for the wealthy — calling them "a much-needed economic shot in the arm."
Critz, meanwhile, has voted to let the Bush cuts expire on taxpayers earning more than $1 million a year, while leaving lower rates in place for everyone else. "All we're asking is that the very wealthiest pay just a little bit higher rate, the rate they were paying when Clinton was in office and we created 22 million jobs in this country," Critz said on Oct. 16. That amendment was defeated by Republicans, and Critz voted for a one-year extension in across-the-board tax cuts that included the wealthy.
One area in which Critz's Democratic bona fides are not in question is his support for, and from, labor unions: So it's no surprise that Critz has been hitting Rothfus hard on outsourcing. Critz says he will support only fair trade agreements that "create new jobs and work to reform trade deals like NAFTA that send jobs overseas." He also supported multiple pieces of legislation regarding free trade, including legislation that would mandate a biennial review of all trade agreements and the imposition of tariffs on countries that manipulate their currency. In September, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rothfus told those at a candidate forum, "We need trade agreements because most of the world has trade agreements. If we don't, others will fill that vacuum." Rothfus is also endorsed by the Club for Growth, a group that pushes a free-trade agenda and has backed a number of free-trade agreements, including one with Colombia that Rothfus has vocally supported.
On paper, Critz would seem to have a serious fundraising edge: His $2.2 million in contributions dwarfs Rothfus' $1.4 million But according to Bloomberg News, more outside money has been spent on this race than any other House race in the country — and Rothfus' backers are outspending Critz's.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $1 million on anti-Critz ads. Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform — the group whose no-tax-increase pledge has been denounced by Democrats around the country — have spent $1.3 million for ads on Rothfus' behalf. Rothfus' direct contributors are a Who's Who of conservative causes and leaders, including Pat Toomey's Leadership PAC and a PAC chaired by House Speaker John Boehner. He's also garnered $10,000 from Eagle Forum, which backs such policies as a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
Critz, meanwhile, draws heavily on support from unions — which have contributed more than $300,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — as well as the defense and the energy sectors, which are both active in the district.