Altmire ads unfair, say Dem colleagues

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) has exasperated a number of senior House Democrats by running attack ads against his primary opponent, Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.), that they see as unfair distortions.

Altmire voted “no” instead of “present” on a conservative budget proposal in April 2011, splitting with party leaders on a tactical vote they were using to embarrass the GOP. Critz joined the majority of Democrats with his “present” vote. But now Altmire is running ads saying that Critz “failed to stand up to the Tea Party” on the bill.

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The move angered a number of senior Democrats. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) put out a statement defending Critz on the vote, and Reps. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) hosted a conference call defending him. 

But Altmire later ran another ad with the same message.

“Manipulating those issues is a disservice to our party and certainly inaccurate about Mark,” Schakowsky, a high-ranking House Democrat, told The Hill. 

Schakowsky has not endorsed in the race — many lawmakers avoid taking sides in member-vs.-member match-ups — and said she only got involved because of the ad. When she was told Altmire had released a second ad days after her conference call, her face darkened. “He doubled down on that?” she said, before pausing. “I’m sorry to hear it.”

Brady, the dean of the Pennsylvania House delegation, also condemned the ad.

“I’m never for negative attacks, especially with two colleagues of the same party running, pitted against each other,” said Brady, who has endorsed Critz. “They do negative ads and then their opponents in the fall will pick up on them. They shouldn’t be doing any negative ads.”

The two congressmen were thrown into the same district by Republican state legislators who got rid of Critz’s old district when Pennsylvania lost a seat in the redistricting process. Most of the territory in the combined district is Altmire’s, but unions have been working hard for Critz and polls show a close race. The primary is on Tuesday.

Critz, a two-term lawmaker, and Altmire, a three-term member, have similarly centrist voting records and regularly buck House leadership, but many members said Critz has a much warmer relationship with most of the caucus.

Altmire almost always sits with fellow members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition on the House floor rather than mixing with other lawmakers, and he infuriated some Democrats with his vote against President Obama’s healthcare law in 2010.

While Critz has said he would have opposed the healthcare law if he’d been in office, he had relationships with many of the members before he was elected. Critz was a longtime staffer for the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a close ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and had worked with many members for years before running for Murtha’s old seat.

Those relationships are reflected in endorsements: Critz has the backing of Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), a member of House leadership, as well as Brady, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.).

All of Altmire’s backing comes from fellow Blue Dog Coalition members: Reps. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Mike Ross (D-Ark.) and Dan Boren (D-Okla.).

House leadership almost never gets involved in member-vs.-member primaries, making Hoyer’s late-March statement even more unusual. 

“House Democrats stood together and voted ‘present’ on the extreme [Republican Study Committee] budget in order to expose its radical policies,” said Hoyer, who spearheaded the strategy. “Doing this showed the American people just how extreme House Republicans are and how devastating their policies would be for our nation, like ending the Medicare guarantee. This was a vote to protect Medicare and derail the Republican budget.”

Other Democrats declined to talk on record about the vote because they didn’t want to be seen taking sides in the primary, but expressed similar irritation with Altmire’s campaign methods.

“I thought it was a little unseemly,” said one. “That was a strategy vote, and we shouldn’t use Hill strategy votes against each other. That’s just not cool.”

Altmire had been happy to talk about the race while walking out of the House of Representatives, but when asked about the ad, he stopped in his tracks.

“It’s 100 percent accurate. My ad says he did not vote against the Tea Party budget, and he didn’t,” he said with an edge to his voice, leaning in and punctuating his words with sharp hand motions.

When pressed if any members had approached him about it, he said, “absolutely not.”

As The Hill began a follow-up question, Altmire grew agitated and cut the reporter off.

“No. It’s not technically correct. It’s 100 percent correct. My ad says he didn’t vote against the Tea Party budget. He didn’t. Thank you, good talking to you,” he said before walking away.

Critz told The Hill that he initially had planned to back Altmire if he lost the primary in the slightly Republican-leaning district. But now he’s not so sure.

“It’s this Medicare ad,” he said. “I’m very frustrated by that, because it’s very misleading. And for him to pick that issue and turn it into a negative ad upsets me because it really undermines what we’re trying to do as a party to protect Medicare. It angers me.”

 A senior House Democrat warned that even if Altmire did win the primary, some members might remember what they view as his scorched-earth tactics.

“It’s a part of human nature that when a Democrat goes over the top to hurt another Democrat it’s not exactly endearing to the rest of the Democrats,” the member said. “He’s not exactly helping his case.”