Salena Zito
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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 nominating petitions.

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

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."

Mikus might know a little about Altmire's operation: He worked on Altmire's 2008 re-election campaign.

Altmire's campaign declined comment beyond a press release emailed last week, dismissing Critz's petition challenge as "baseless" and "a desperate attack ... designed to disenfranchise" voters.

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

Murtha beat Mascara handily in a battle so bitter that Mark Singel, a former acting governor, is pretty sure both 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 was 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.

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 Altmire's old turf.

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Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.