By Shira Toeplitz
The boundaries of Pennsylvania's redrawn 12th district favor Rep. Jason Altmire over Rep. Mark Critz.
But on Capitol Hill, many Keystone State Democrats quietly hope the underdog Critz will eke out a primary victory later this month.
"I guess what I can tell you is I'm still hanging out in the Pennsylvania corner" of the House floor, Critz told Roll Call.
Many House Democrats remain loyal to Critz because they revered his late boss and predecessor, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.).
Altmire, meanwhile, never cozied up to other Democrats in the delegation after his first election in 2006. He still takes heat from them for his vote against the health care bill two years ago.
Most Democrats in the delegation emphasized their neutrality, at least publicly, ahead of the April 24 primary for the competitive district north of Pittsburgh.
"I'm Switzerland," Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said last week. "I think the position of most of the delegation is we're going to make sure whoever wins the primary wins the general election."
But last week, Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) broke ranks and backed Critz.
"I did give Mark Critz a financial contribution," Brady told reporters. "I am endorsing him also."
Pennsylvania Democrats view Brady as the unofficial dean of their delegation, and his endorsement carries symbolic weight. Even though he's not the longest-serving House Democrat from Pennsylvania, aides argued that Brady's support shows where many Democrats in the delegation stand on the race: More than two years after Murtha's death, many Members are loyal to Critz, his longtime staffer.
"Most people are rooting for Mark," one Pennsylvania Democratic staffer said. "There's clearly a history. A lot of Members worked with Mark when he was a staffer. Mr. Murtha was beloved by the delegation, and I think that merits a certain loyalty."
Critz worked on Murtha's official staff beginning in 2001, including serving as his district director for three years. After Murtha died in 2010, Critz won a competitive special election for his seat.
"When I got through that special election, I was adopted by a lot of senior Members," Critz said. "In the Pennsylvania corner, those guys really took me under their wing. Even though I was Jack Murtha's guy, I was still a rookie."
In addition to Brady, Critz remains close with a couple of Pennsylvania Democrats. He dines almost weekly in Washington with Doyle, Rep. Tim Holden (Pa.) and a cadre of other northeastern Democrats.
Meanwhile, Altmire staked out a distinctly different path in Congress.
An underdog and outsider in 2006, Altmire upset then-Rep. Melissa Hart (R) in a Republican-leaning district in suburban Pittsburgh. He's successfully won re-election by compiling a moderate voting record and profile in Congress.
Most memorably, Altmire voted against Democrats' health care overhaul, a vote that many Pennsylvania insiders say saved his 2010 re-election. But Altmire's decision irked Democrats who felt he held them out to dry with his last-minute and closely held decision to vote "nay."
These days, instead of hanging out in the Pennsylvania corner of the House floor, Altmire sits with fellow Blue Dog Democrats, such as Reps. Mike Ross (Ark.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.), during votes. And as of last week, Altmire said he hasn't asked anyone in the delegation for support.
"I have not had a conversation with anybody in the delegation about supporting either of us in the race," Altmire said. "It comes up -- "How's it going?' -- that kind of thing. But I have not asked or had any kind of conversation with anybody."
The split between the two Democrats boiled over last week when Altmire released a TV ad criticizing Critz for voting present instead of against the Republican Study Committee's budget in 2011.
But Critz and his fellow Democrats quickly cried foul. In a tactic designed to help the RSC budget pass, Democratic House leaders urged Members to vote present on the fiscal 2012 budget. Brady and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) took Altmire to task for his spot, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) released a statement defending Critz.
Despite this, many Members remain quiet about their support in this redistricting-forced contest.
Member-vs.-Member contests are unpredictable, and turnout in this primary is expected to be especially low given the dearth of Democratic contests higher on the ballot.
The redrawn 12th district's geography helps Altmire because it includes more of his current territory. But just last month, freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) stunned longtime Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) in a redrawn district that favored the latter on paper.
"With no statewide campaign having a major ground game to drive turnout, this is all going to come down to Critz and his endorsements," Democratic consultant Daren Berringer said. "Organized labor has wanted to send Altmire a payback message for a while, and if they run their operation at full tilt, Critz could pull this out."