U.S. Rep. Mark Critz said on Tuesday he will skip the Democratic National Convention in favor of campaigning in Pennsylvania, much like top elected Democrats in neighboring West Virginia who are disgruntled with President Obama.
Critz and others shying away from Obama’s renomination party in Charlotte the week of Sept. 3 believe it’s more important to shake constituents’ hands and listen to their concerns about the economy and the administration’s energy policy than to attend an event geared toward party politics.
"Since I was elected, my focus has been on creating jobs for people here, rather than focusing on the agendas of the political parties in Washington," Johnstown’s Critz said.
His campaign spokesman, Mike Mikus, said their internal polling shows the president is down double digits to Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the redrawn, six-county congressional district where Critz won a close victory against U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless in the April primary. He will go against Republican Keith Rothfus, an Edgeworth attorney, in the general election.
That makes the decision to avoid the convention "pretty easy," Mikus said. Moreover, he said, "it is fair to say" that Critz will not ask the president to campaign with him.
Though U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. of Scranton and Rep. Mike Doyle of Forest Hills said they plan to attend the convention, Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn of Millvale said he suspects that other candidates for House seats will stay home.
"Like Critz, that is the right thing for them to do," Burn said. "They should be home winning votes, not be seen at a party."
Larry Puccio, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, is clear about why U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin won’t go.
"It is obvious we are frustrated with the administration over coal and energy issues," Puccio said.
Manchin in 2008 addressed the national convention in Denver, urging Democrats to elect Obama. Then, he was a popular governor seeking re-election. But since winning a special election in November 2010 to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd, Manchin has criticized Obama’s economic and energy policies and hasn’t endorsed Obama for re-election.
Much like in Pennsylvania, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in West Virginia, despite a growing number of independents, and Democrats hold 70 percent of local elected offices, Puccio said.
"So, rather than go to a party in North Carolina, our guys will be focused on shaking hands with voters and earning their votes," he said. "That is how we do it here."
Pennsylvania Department of State data from the April primary show Obama underperformed in an unchallenged election, finishing with 616,000 votes — 100,000 fewer than Democratic voters cast in the barely contested race between Sen. Bob Casey Jr. and challenger John Vodvarka.
Even in labor-rich Allegheny County, Obama drew nearly 2,000 fewer votes than did state Rep. Eugene DePasquale, a York County Democrat who ran unopposed in the primary for state auditor general. He’ll face Republican Rep. John Maher of Upper St. Clair this fall.
Obama’s under-performance continued in May primaries in Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia. He lost more than 40 percent of the Democratic vote in each of those states, to other candidates or "uncommitted," and his showing worsened in counties in the heart of coal country.
Choosing not to vote for the president or choosing anyone but him — such as a nominal candidate, or a convicted felon on West Virginia’s ballot — is an affirmative act, said Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University.
"The partisan voters who cast these ballots — or, in the case of Pennsylvania, did not cast a ballot — made a choice," she said. "They paused, reflected and used whatever means were available to them to legitimately demonstrate their discontent with the Democratic Party’s nominee."
Though it’s impossible to know what motivated each voter, the administration’s ardent push for alternative energy sources to fossil fuels and socially progressive policy decisions likely pushed voters away, Brown said.
Pennsylvania’s primary results indicate Obama’s weakness among working-class, white Democrats in traditionally conservative areas, said Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College.
"Indicators like this emphasize the importance of Obama winning voters in places like suburban Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley and drawing high turnout from the major cities in the state," he said.
Yet, Brown isn’t certain that voters discontented with Obama will vote for Romney. More likely, she said, these voters will stay home and that, in turn, "would help Romney and the GOP, assuming that Romney is able to turn out Republican" voters.
The Democrats, including Obama, might not be concerned about his lack of support in Appalachia and some Southern states. Since his 2008 campaign, Brown said, Democratic leaders have said they’re determined to form a new electoral vote map — one that would break up Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s "New Deal Coalition," formed during the Depression, which brought together ethnic minorities and blue-collar whites in urban areas (many of them Catholics) and rural voters in the South and West (many of them Protestants).
That coalition, based on class, split up the North-versus-South sectional divide that Abraham Lincoln exploited. Republicans began fighting for these voters, "focusing on social and cultural issues," Brown said.
Obama rejects this narrative, Brown said.
"For him, the issue is not class but race and ethnicity," she said. "He and the Democratic Party have decided that the best way to ‘win the future’ is to win over ethnic and racial minorities because whites are shrinking (in number).
"In short, they are trying to create a new map that allows them to win every state that has a large and growing immigrant population and/or a large percentage of African-Americans. Doing so would, of course, make Obama a historically important figure in terms of the Democratic Party."
But, she noted: "He has to win a second term to claim this legacy."
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter