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Rothfus grabs late edge over Critz; both attracted heavy outside funding

| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, 12:10 a.m.
Congressional candidate Keith Rothfus is flanked by his father and wife as he addresses supporters at the Ross Twp. Holiday Inn Tuesday, November 6, 2012. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)
Sewickley Herald
Congressional candidate Keith Rothfus casts his vote at St. Stephen's Church in Sewickley Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Voting continued after The Herald's Tuesday afternoon deadline. Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald

Republicans seized a highly sought seat when Sewickley lawyer Keith Rothfus won the most expensive congressional race in the country this year, according to unofficial returns Tuesday.

Preliminary returns showed Rothfus with 51.3 percent of the vote to U.S. Rep. Mark Critz's 48.7 percent, with 91 percent of precincts reporting. The apparent victory offered a consolation prize to Pennsylvania Republicans scorched by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's defeat and Democrats' sweep of Republicans in statewide row office races and U.S. Senate.

Supporters in both camps were exasperated as the results materialized, but cheers broke out among the estimated 150 Rothfus supporters at the Holiday Inn in Ross when election results showed he pulled ahead about 10:20 p.m. About an hour later, Critz conceded the race.

Rothfus credited the victory to hard work by his supporters and voter discontent, vowing that his priority in Washington would be the economy. He said he would work hard to decrease the national debt and adopt the “appropriate kind of health care reform.”

“We've got to get the economy working again,” he said. “We're going to carry the message of reform to Washington, D.C. I look forward to working where we can with the president, always adhering to our principles.”

Rothfus said he had a “good conversation” with Critz, calling him a formidable and honorable opponent. He thanked his family and supporters for their hard work, and vowed to maintain a self-imposed term limit of 12 years “if I last that long.”

“We did the best we could. I want to congratulate Keith Rothfus,” Critz said in a concession address shortly after 11:30 p.m. in Johnstown.

“It was a tough race, but it wasn't as tough on me as it was on my wife, Nancy, and son, Joe, and daughter, Sadie,” Critz said.

Campaign spokesman Mike Mikus said Critz didn't do as well as he had hoped in Beaver and Lawrence counties.

Critz narrowly won rural Beaver and Lawrence counties, but lost in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Somerset, where he was expected to do better because of his roots in nearby Cambria County.

Mikus said the millions of dollars SuperPACs spent on ads opposing Critz was too much to overcome.

“We almost overcame insurmountable odds,” Critz said.

Critz said he telephoned Rothfus and wished him well and offered him any assistance needed in his transition.

“I told him we'll help him any way possible,” Critz said.

A victory for Rothfus, a lawyer from Sewickley, ends Johnstown's streak of having a hometown Democrat in Congress since Critz's former boss, the late Rep. John Murtha, took office in 1973. Republicans redrew the district and extended it westward when Pennsylvania lost a seat.

Rothfus, 50, a former George W. Bush administration official, ran in 2010 against Rep. Jason Altmire but lost.

Critz, 50, has endured four campaigns since taking office that year when Murtha died.

The district stretches over southern Lawrence County, through Beaver County, the northern tiers of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, and through large swaths of Cambria and Somerset counties.

Outside liberal and conservative groups targeted what they viewed as a vulnerable, socially conservative district by spending more than $11 million to maintain a drumbeat of TV spots, mailers and radio commercials. That made it the most expensive congressional battle as last-minute ad buys came the week of the election.

Some of the most prolific contributors were labor groups. The AFL-CIO spent heavily to support Critz, and Americans for Tax Reform, a Republican-leaning nonprofit known for its anti-tax pledge, backed Rothfus.

Both candidates are anti-abortion and vowed to protect the rights of gun owners.

Frank Fantauzzo, 65, of Johnstown said the fact that Critz is from Cambria County, like Murtha and his predecessor, John Saylor, is a main reason he supports him.

“It is imperative we have a local voice representing us from Johnstown in Washington,” said Fantauzzo, a retiree and AFL-CIO member.

Critz tried to highlight his conservative views with ads featuring his endorsement from the National Rifle Association and reminding voters of his pro-military views.

Rothfus railed against Critz for supporting President Obama's health care overhaul and tried to link Critz to high unemployment rates during much of Obama's term.

Doug Reed, 47, of Franklin Park said he has supported Rothfus since 2009.

“Mostly it was (Rothfus') desire to get spending under control,” said Reed, a medical researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. “The other thing was repealing Obamacare and getting rid of that.”

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or Staff writers Bob Bauder and Paul Peirce contributed to this report.

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