Silent Vote: Tea-party Congressman Keith Rothfus is seeking a second term, so how come nobody seems to care? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Silent Vote: Tea-party Congressman Keith Rothfus is seeking a second term, so how come nobody seems to care?

Rothfus faces Democratic challenger Erin McClelland in November

click to enlarge In the running for 12th Congressional District: Keith Rothfus
Photo by John Colombo
In the running for 12th Congressional District: Keith Rothfus

Tea-party Congressman Keith Rothfus is trying to escape the Shannopin Country Club, wrestling with a door handle that won't budge.

He has just finished blasting the Affordable Care Act and "bureaucratic elites in Washington, D.C., who think they know best what kind of light bulb you should have in your house."

"The American people," Rothfus tells local members of the National Aging in Place Council, "are hungry for a government that understands it's the hard-working taxpayer who pays the salaries of people in government. You have to be customer-service-focused. You have to listen."

His remarks — like his TV ads — don't include a single mention that he's running for re-election.

Even after the speech, he's not interested in talking with a reporter about his voting record or re-election bid — deflecting questions without slowing his stride toward the exit. "I've got a daughter at home who I have to go buy sneakers for. It's a commitment I made three days ago," Rothfus says.

But the double-doors leading out to the parking lot won't open, and he and his aide are tugging at them loudly enough to draw attention from the receptionist. She gestures toward the leftmost door, which, after a few seconds, gives way.

Rothfus walks briskly across the parking lot, his aide insisting a formal interview request must be made. (City Paper made several requests for an interview with Rothfus both before and after the event; no interview was offered.) He offers only short, staccato answers before disappearing into a car. "Every race is a tough race," he says. "My voting record will speak for itself. I've supported a lot of bipartisan legislation."

Rothfus does have an almost two-year congressional voting record that includes controversial votes to keep the federal government shut down and against $10 billion in disaster relief in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. But the way this race has taken shape since his uncontested primary this past spring, neither he — nor his record — will have to do much talking.

That's a big change from just two years ago, when Rothfus defeated incumbent Democrat Mark Critz by about 3 percentage points — becoming the first Republican to hold the seat since 1974. The race was a bloodbath that attracted roughly $10 million in outside spending (reportedly the most of any U.S. House race that year) and flooded the district with negative ads.

This time, though, the airwaves in the 12th Congressional District are virtually silent. The national parties, which dumped around $4.3 million into the district in 2012, have pulled out. So have the SuperPACs.

Rothfus' challenger, Erin McClelland, is just about the only one talking about Rothfus publicly. A New Kensington Democrat who has never held political office, she's quick to say Rothfus' far-right ideology doesn't represent the more centrist district.

But while McClelland and her volunteers are knocking on doors, she hasn't been able to close a substantial fundraising gap. As this issue was going to press, McClelland had raised just $244,660 compared to Rothfus' $1.76 million war chest.

To make matters worse, the media has hardly touched the race, leaving an outgunned McClelland with few cost-effective options to reach the roughly 700,000 people in the district.

"Keith Rothfus is a lock on his seat," says Bill Green, a Republican strategist, "as is every single congressman in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania"

So how did the Pennsylvania 12th, a Democratic stronghold that was among the most competitive congressional districts in the nation two years ago, seemingly become a slam dunk for a tea-party Republican?

A key part of the answer is the way the district's boundaries changed after the 2010 census, according to Kyle Kondik. He's a Cleveland native who follows Rust Belt politics and is the managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a website that offers analysis on elections across the country through the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

The 12th was redrawn to absorb most of the 4th Congressional District, which was previously occupied by center-right Democrat Jason Altmire, and is more conservative than the 12th at the presidential level.

In 2008, for example, 49.8 percent of the 12th District went to Obama. But if the 12th District had absorbed the 4th back in 2008, only 45.2 percent of the district would have voted for the President.

"They redrew the 12th in a way that it would be won by Republicans — that was the goal of the Republicans in Harrisburg, and that was successful," Kondik says.

The new district includes all of Beaver County and parts of Allegheny, Cambria, Lawrence, Somerset and Westmoreland counties — extending from Ellwood City in the north, south into northern Allegheny County and all the way to Johnstown in the east.

"Democrats really didn't hold that seat; it's a new seat," says Don Friedman, a Democratic consultant. "Their goal was to give [Democratic Congressman] Mike Doyle as many Democrats as they could," since his district already covers liberal strongholds in Pittsburgh.

But redistricting only tells part of the story: In 2012, Democratic incumbent Mark Critz, another moderate, lost to Rothfus by just 3 percentage-points — after the lines were redrawn. And in the old 4th District (the more conservative area that was largely pushed into the 12th), in 2010, Democratic incumbent Jason Altmire fended off a challenge from Rothfus, narrowly beating him by 1.6 percentage points.

The 12th District "should never be written off," argues Mike Mikus, a former Altmire and Critz campaign manager. "It got a little tougher, but in the right year, this seat can be won."

Mikus, who now works for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf's Fresh Start PAC, says the top of the ticket might dictate how competitive the district is. In an off-year election with an unpopular president, it will be an uphill battle for Democrats, Mikus says.

"Part of it is that the national Democratic Party brand is just in really terrible shape in Appalachia," agrees the University of Virginia's Kondik, who says 52 out of 62 U.S. House seats that contain at least one Appalachian county are held by Republicans.

"I don't think McClelland was a top-tier recruit for the Democrats and I don't think the Democrats prioritized this race nationally. The people in that district are probably more economically populist than [Rothfus], but at the same time the district now votes pretty strongly for Republicans at the presidential level."

Even the ultra-conservative Club for Growth, which endorsed Rothfus and spent $317,000 in his successful race against Critz, isn't worried about the race.

"In general, we typically try to avoid supporting incumbents" because they tend to have a fundraising advantage, says Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller. Still, he says, "I don't think [anyone] rates this race as competitive."

The first question Erin McClelland gets at the Ellwood City Oktoberfest is about guns ... and it comes from Dave Gallocher, a man who says he "usually has an arsenal on him."

Without missing a beat — and between beer tastings — McClelland offers her almost unequivocal support of gun rights. She says she strongly supports the Second Amendment and is in favor of "leaving people alone."

Gallocher nods in approval, but later says he probably couldn't be persuaded to vote for a Democrat: "I'm a get-off-your-ass-and-work kind of person."

Still, like Altmire and Critz, McClelland is trying to stake out conservative territory to win a district she describes as "blue-collar to the core." She criticizes Obama's efforts to curb emissions from coal plants and says she's not sure if she would have voted for the Affordable Care Act. She says she wants to "eradicate" abortion, but doesn't support a legal ban.

On other issues — like LGBT rights, taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent and raising the minimum wage — she's more progressive.

"She is pretty pro-business," says Tony May, a public-affairs consultant for Triad Strategies and former Democratic campaign consultant. "In a fairer race where she isn't at such a financial disadvantage, I think she'd be an excellent candidate."

Ask McClelland why she's running, and it's Rothfus' record — not those policy positions — that she talks about first.

She points to his votes against the Violence Against Women Act and re-opening the federal government during the shutdown. She hammers him hardest on his vote against relief for victims of Superstorm Sandy, a bill he voted against because, as he said at the time, "Congress should have worked to find a way to pay for this now."

"Nihilism and destruction from within: That's his policy agenda," McClelland says.

Green, the GOP strategist, offered a different characterization.

"I don't think Keith is a conservative-down-your-throat guy," he says, noting that historically, the district has elected conservative politicians.

Former Democratic campaign consultant May agrees that while Rothfus might be on the more conservative end of his party, "he's an intelligent guy and he's careful about the way he speaks out so he's not publicly offensive." That's in contrast with tea-partiers like Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, "who believes in birther issues and [the] feasibility of building a wall that will keep out any foreign-born people," May says.

And because Rothfus isn't more vocal on positions that might be on the fringes of public opinion, "the media doesn't call attention to his votes [even though] these tend to be issues that split the district," May adds. On his vote against ending the government shutdown, for instance, neither the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette nor Tribune-Review reported in the body of their stories that he voted "no."

"He hasn't talked much about his record at all," echoes David Martin, a financial consultant in attendance at the Rothfus event who lives in the 4th Congressional District, but whose business is based in the 12th. "We're hoping that people start to move to the middle."

But with $46,125 cash on hand at press time, McClelland doesn't have the money to build name recognition as a moderate Democrat or run TV ads about Rothfus' record (and none of Rothfus' ads to date mention McClelland).

"We have a lot of fundraising challenges, and they're challenges that any first-time female candidate would have," says McClelland campaign manager Marios Kritiotis. "We'd love to get on TV, but we need to be realistic with what we have."

But even though observers like Kondik aren't expecting a close race, he says the district shouldn't be written off down the road — especially once Obama's unpopularity isn't a factor.

"You'd have to be delusional to think race doesn't have to do with it, especially with a black president in the White House," he says. "The Clinton brand is certainly better in Appalachia than the Obama brand. I think it could be competitive in the future."

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