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Down ballot: Labor looks to settle score in Pa., plus cancer, bribery, and President Obama

 

While there is not a competitive presidential primary in Pennsylvania any more, that doesn't mean there's nothing to watch for tonight. Pennsylvania is holding primaries for all of its Congressional districts, and a Senate seat tonight, and that makes it worth watching.

Maybe the most interesting race of the evening is in Southwestern PA, where two incumbent Democrats are squaring off in the redrawn 12th congressional district. Republicans controlled the redistricting process in the state, and they threw two vulnerable incumbents into the same district to let them fight it out. Interestingly, what they did makes geographical sense. They dismantled the rambling 12th district (created in 2002 for the late John Murtha) and put the Democratic stronghold of Johnstown into the neighboring district of Jason Altmire, who represents Pittsburgh's northern suburbs.

The result is that Altmire and Rep. Mark Critz are locked in a heated primary that shows the schisms inside the Democratic electorate. Altmire should have the upper hand -- about 66% percent of the electorate are voters he's represented before. Critz is being outspent and has been battling from behind for months now. The latest poll shows Critz has reduced Altmire's overwhelming lead to narrow four-point advantage.

The reason the race has tightened can be summed up in one word: Labor. Union leaders have been unhappy with Altmire for two years, dating back to when they allege Altmire broke his promise and voted against the final health-care reform bill. Critz has the near-unanimous backing from labor -- including the United Steelworkers, Mineworkers, SEIU, and AFL-CIO. Critz believes his labor support will give him momentum on the ground, while Altmire says that union leaders are trying to "setttle what they perceive to be an old score."

Altmire has cultivated an image as an "independent Democrat," but he's always had close races. This year, he has the endorsements of much of the Democratic establishment in the 12th district, which should help him overcome losing union-heavy Johnstown by a wide margin.

The two Democrats have traded nasty TV ads -- squabbling over Altmire's vote for a GOP balanced budget amendment, and Critz's vote to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Both men are social conservatives, and in a recent debate both refused to say if they would campaign with Barack Obama in the fall.

Another incumbent worth watching tonight is Rep. Tim Holden (D) in Pennsylvania's 17th district. The 10-term incumbent had made a habit of fending off challengers in his Republican-leaning district, but the new congressional map packed many more Democrats into his rambling district that stretches from Scranton all the way to the New Jersey line.

The result is a district that is 80% new turf for him, and he's getting a challenge from the left. He's up against a formidable opponent in Scranton attorney Matt Cartwright. The campaign has gotten nasty, with the candidates calling for a ceasefire.

Holden has been targeted by Cartwright for voting against the president's health law. In a mailer -- dropped by Cartwright's campaign just as they had called the ceasefire --  had this, per the Allentown Morning Call: "Is Holden worried about cancer?" The answer: "NO!”

Holden hit Cartwright with a television ad that "essentially accused Cartwright of bribing a judge with campaign donations...," the Morning Call wrote.

Holden is also battling against an anti-incumbent SuperPAC that has spent nearly $200,000 against him.

It all might add up to the end of the road for this Blue Dog Democrat.