Salena Zito

The only explanation that comes to mind is that redistricting left the political boundaries up in the air until December.

Still, Critz’s team collected more signatures than Altmire’s – and most of the new district is from Altmire’s old turf.

“Even more damning,” according to Skelley, “is the fact that 385 of the 942 signatures being contested by Critz were collected by an Altmire staffer who lives outside the district, which isn’t allowed under Pennsylvania law.”

The signature-collecting requirements are pretty clear, he said, yet Altmire’s staff may have made enough mistakes to cost him a place on the Democrats’ primary ballot.

Pitting incumbents against each other is a classic strategy used by the majority party to wound the opposition. We see incumbent-vs.-incumbent battles every ten years, in the first election following redistricting.

A similar example can be found in Ohio, where longtime congressmen Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur, both Democrats, were pushed together by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Washington Democrats say they are worried about the very real possibility that Altmire may be permanently damaged by being thrown off the ballot, or residually damaged going into a general election with a negative narrative about his capabilities.

Washington Republicans, by the way, are thrilled: They consider Altmire tougher to beat than Critz.

Altmire and Critz are classic centrist-conservative Western Pennsylvania Democrats. Obama won just 45 percent of the vote in Altmire’s old district and less than 50 percent in Critz’s, so both candidates are capable of winning in fairly purple territory.

The new district is about a 45 percent Obama district. So Altmire indeed might have a better chance of winning the general election than Critz, having held a Republican-redder district in the past and having represented more of the new 12th District, according to Skelley.

Even without this party spat, or even in a non-presidential year, this Western Pennsylvania House seat would be front and center in national press coverage: It leans right, could easily be held by a conservative Democrat, and is home to voters whom Obama once referred to as bitter and clinging to their God, Bibles and guns.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.