Elections are usually a referendum on the incumbent. But in Pennsylvania Congressional District 4, voters have two congressional track records to choose from.
The race pits Jason Altmire, a first-term Democrat, against Melissa Hart, the former three-term Republican congresswoman he beat in 2006. Both must negotiate the difficult terrain of the district, which includes all of Beaver and Lawrence counties, northern Allegheny County, and portions of three other counties nearby. The district is a mix of rural voters, prosperous suburbanites and old-school pro-labor Dems in the former steel belt.
Hart will have to explain to voters why sending her back to Washington is a good idea after they threw her out two years ago. Altmire, meanwhile, must persuade independent voters that he's their guy -- without alienating rank-and-file Democrats.
He's done that largely by letting everyone know how often he bucks his party's leadership. He has voted to extend President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, allow off-shore drilling and back a measure to crack down on illegal immigrants. Many Democrats opposed the bill without accompanying legislation to help immigrants who wanted to settle here legally. Altmire had a different concern: He's sought to make sure that the fence being built along the U.S.-Mexico border uses steel produced in Pennsylvania, rather than China.
Altmire says has broken with his party so frequently that its leaders "don't even try to persuade me very often."
Altmire's willingness to side with Republicans has angered some Democrats. Last year, for example, liberal blog OpenLeft.com tagged Altmire and 37 other Democrats as "Bush Dog Democrats." I asked Altmire at the time if that criticism bothered him.
"They don't know my district," Altmire shot back.
Nevertheless, Hart has tried to pigeonhole Altmire as a liberal Democrat who does as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tells him to do. A Hart campaign mailing, for example, depicts Altmire as a ventriloquist dummy on Pelosi's lap, and charges that he voted with Democrats "almost 90 percent of the time."
Altmire has voted with his party 87 percent of the time, according to a voter database maintained by the Washington Post. But many of those votes were on strictly procedural issues and had no impact on policy. On key issues, he skews more conservative. In 2007, the nonpartisan National Journal magazine ranked Altmire as being "at the ideological center" of the House. Among Pennsylvania's 11 Democratic reps, the magazine found Altmire's voting record was the second most conservative -- and the 17th-most conservative among all House Democrats.
Altmire has pursued a similarly middle-of-the-road strategy in the presidential campaign. When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigned in Western Pennsylvania, Altmire showed up at their events. But he withheld his endorsement throughout the primaries. Though he is a Democratic "super-delegate" by virtue of being in Congress, he says, "I don't think super-delegates should play a role. ... Let the voters decide."
It's unclear how much support a President Obama would get from Altmire. Asked whether he supports Obama's plan to mandate health insurance for children, Altmire demurred. He supports expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), and says Congress could improve access to care by enhancing technology and efficiency.
Altmire released a poll in early October showing he led 53 to 41 percent. Pundits have all but called the race for Altmire, who has at least two key advantages over Hart: He's the incumbent, and he's a Democrat in what is shaping up to be a rough year for Republicans. Stuart Rothenberg, the author of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Report, has characterized the race as "lean Democratic" rather than a "toss-up" or "lean Republican."
Altmire has also raised $2.6 million this election cycle, according to federal campaign-finance records. That's more than twice Hart's $1.2 million.
But Hart says she's employing a lesson she learned from 2006. In that year, she largely bypassed debates and negative advertisements defining Altmire.
"I ran on a positive vision and message and it was overwhelmed by 527 money [that] came in on behalf of the challenger," Hart said, referring to independent groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money to run political ads. "You have to run ads of contrast."
This time, Hart has wasted no time going negative, and trying to tie Altmire to a Congress whose popularity ratings are even lower than President Bush's.
"My issues are to talk to the people about what they've had in this congressman," Hart says, adding that the Congress has not come up with solutions to health care and energy policy. Instead, she says, representatives "wait a long time to vote on something that is politically motivated and tell [voters] something different."
Altmire, a former lobbyist for UPMC "still refers to himself as a health-care executive, like he administered some kind of health-care program or runs a doctor's office," Hart charged during a phone interview. "He never served in that kind of position."
She also faults Altmire for voting to approve a spending bill that included a $2 million earmark for Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who is facing legal scrutiny for failing to properly report the value of real-estate holdings. She's called for a ban on all earmarks, even though Congress approved reforms in 2007 that made the process more transparent.
After Altmire opposed the $700 billion financial bailout package, The New York Times reported that Hart "would criticize his stance on the bailout either way -- if he remains opposed, he is pandering to voters in a tough election year; if he switches his vote, he is flipping to help pass a bad plan."
So how would Hart have voted? She's told a Web site, PolitickerPA, that Congress "moved too quickly to intervene," but said she would have supported the bailout if "signs of total financial collapse began appearing."
Altmire has responded to these attacks by not responding. In 2006, Hart declined opportunities to debate Altmire; this year, she's accusing him of dodging debates. Only one debate -- an Oct. 23 gathering at Penn State's Beaver campus -- has been slated for the entire election season.
Hart says she's frustrated by how the race has played out.
"We don't have adults running for office," she says.
Jonathan E. Kaplan is a freelance political reporter in Washington, D.C.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story, which cited the wrong year for the National Journal rankings, has been corrected.