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Shift in voter allegiance bodes ill for Democrats

| Tuesday, May 1, 2012, 8:36 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire's loss in the Democratic primary marks the end of more than just his congressional career. Moderate Democrats, he said Tuesday, appear to be on their way out the door.

"I don't see a role for them in Congress," said Altmire, of McCandless, who lost last week to Rep. Mark Critz of Johnstown in a newly drawn district. Critz faces Republican Keith Rothfus, an Edgeworth attorney, this fall.

Voters who put 30 Democratic House members in office in 2006 appear to be shifting their allegiance again -- largely because of the economy, experts said, and an anti-big government sentiment that began taking hold two years ago.

"The country is in an unsettled state," said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst for the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Some Democrats worry that could spell trouble for 10 freshman senators seeking re-election, including Bob Casey Jr. of Scranton.

"Casey had to cast a lot of tough votes in the past Congress," said Sean Trende, a political analyst with RealClearPolitics. "Plus, his opponent, Republican Tom Smith, certainly has the money to spend to pose a threat under the right circumstances." Smith, an Armstrong County businessman, put $5 million of his money into the primary campaign.

Still, Trende said, Casey won by 18 points in 2006, "so even subtracting the advantage granted from the Democratic 'wave' that year, he starts out with a pretty good lead." Casey's name recognition -- as a former state treasurer and auditor general and the son of a former governor -- also helps, he said.

In 2006, voters' fatigue with President George W. Bush, corruption charges affecting House members, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq enabled Democrats to win control of the Senate and House.

Yet today, only seven of 30 Democrats elected that year remain in office; Altmire is the only one of four remaining in Pennsylvania's delegation. In 2010, Republicans won back 63 House seats.

"It is remarkable to consider that the 'Class of 2006' is gone," said Patrick Murphy, a Bucks County Democrat who was among those who lost two years ago to Republican challengers, along with Kathy Dalhkemper of Erie, Chris Carney of Susquehanna County and Paul Kanjorski of Luzerne. Former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Media ran for Senate instead of re-election to his House seat and lost to Republican Pat Toomey of Lehigh County.

Altmire will leave at the end of the year. Though Critz won 51 percent of the overall vote last week, Altmire doesn't think voters threw him out of office. "I got 70 percent support of the constituents in my district," he said.

Altmire narrowly retained his seat in 2010. He had pleased many constituents but angered some Democratic leaders by voting against President Obama's health care law. He said the Obama administration's stimulus package and TARP legislation that bailed out troubled financial institutions made other moderate Democrats vulnerable.

"In order to hold these competitive seats, you have to have someone who really is a moderate, not someone who is just perceived as one," Altmire said. "You have to demonstrate that to your constituents. If you don't have a voting a record that fits the district, you lose the voters' confidence."

Sestak said he considered himself an independent moderate in a Republican district. For two years, he said, "my votes had me in the top 30 percent of the 'most conservative' Democratic congressional members." That ranking fell to below 50 percent, he said, when Congress passed the economic stimulus and health care packages.

"Being a pragmatic moderate is not enough," Sestak said. "The people also must believe you represent them independently of the party."

Senate races are different because the districts -- entire states -- cannot be carved up through redistricting when population shifts occur, Kondik said.

This fall, "Casey should be OK, but Democratic senators from redder states -- Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jon Tester in Montana -- are in deeper trouble," he said, because polling suggests voters' preference is tilting toward presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in those states.

Of the 10 Democrats elected to the Senate in 2006, only Jim Webb of Virginia is not seeking re-election.

Brad Todd, a veteran Republican media consultant in Washington, is working to help the party hold its majority in the House. He's mindful of the fact that Democrats lost their big House gains, but said the difference now is that Republicans targeted and won seats they can reasonably expect to hold. In short, the GOP candidates better match their districts.

"We gunned for seats that would last," he said.

The Tea Party, said Washington-based Democratic strategist John Lapp, could become a liability for some Republicans. Many people no longer view the group as a populist, grassroots organization, he said. Instead, Lapp emphasizes it as "a dangerous group with extremist views that don't reflect the mainstream values of America's middle class."

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