Salena Zito

Everyone expected Jason Altmire to face a messy primary battle this spring with fellow Democrat Mark Critz, after their Western Pennsylvania congressional districts were essentially combined under redistricting.

No one expected Altmire to be unseated by something as rudimentary as failing to get 1,000 valid signatures on his nominating petitions.

Yet that is exactly what happened late last week, when the Critz campaign challenged 950 of the 1,600 signatures on petitions submitted by Altmire.

Collecting petition signatures is Campaign 101, according to Mike Mikus, Critz’s campaign manager.

“Everyone knows the rules and what is expected,” Mikus said. “The fact that the Altmire campaign (collected) only 1,651 signatures, most of which are invalid, shows that his campaign has some very serious organizational issues.”

He might know a little about the Altmire operation: He worked on its re-election campaign in 2008.

Altmire’s campaign declined comment beyond an emailed press release last week, dismissing Critz’s petition challenge as “baseless” and “a desperate attack … designed to disenfranchise” district voters.

The 12th District once was a center of national attention because of Jack Murtha, the longtime colorful and very powerful congressman who legislated from Johnstown for more than 35 years.  Even he had to battle a fellow Democrat, Frank Mascara, when their two districts were combined following the 2000 census.

Murtha beat Mascara handily but the battle became so bitter that Mark Singel, a former acting governor, is pretty sure both men went to their graves never speaking again.

“Fair to say that animosity lingered to the end,” Singel said.

“This is a pretty unusual situation,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst. The closest comparison he can recall occurred when former congressman Charlie Wilson of Ohio failed to make the ballot for lack of signatures and “had to run a write-in campaign to win the Democratic nomination.”

Washington Democrats parachuted in and produced way more signatures than Wilson needed. He went on to win the general election.

“This episode shows that Altmire’s team … did a poor job of executing a straightforward task, which reflects poorly on the congressman,” said Skelley.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.