Three races to watch in Pennsylvania Tuesday

Just three weeks ago, all political eyes were on the Republican presidential primary in Pennsylvania and whether the Keystone State’s former Sen. Rick Santorum would be a favorite son or prodigal son in a race with Mitt Romney.  Now Santorum is out of the race, and — while Romney still faces Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul — interest in Tuesday’s race for national convention delegates has faded considerably.

Now, the major political stories in Pennsylvania will be on the Democratic primary in the 12th District (Western Pennsylvania), in which Democratic Reps. Jason Altimire and Mark Critz square off to run in the same district, and in the 18th District, where veteran Republican Rep. Tim Murphy faces a spirited primary challenge from conservative Evan Feinberg.  Both contests have grown nasty, but their nasty tone pales in comparison to that of the three front-running candidates for the Republican nomination to oppose Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, Jr.

Three-termer Altmire, who opposed ObamaCare and supported the Balanced Budget Amendment, is squaring off against the 50-year-old Critz, who won a special election in 2010 to succeed his late boss, veteran Democratic Rep. and “prince of pork” John Murtha.  Considered the less liberal of the two, Altmire has recently shaken the race up by attacking Critz for not supporting key entitlements by being absent from voting against the Republican budget plan.

In the only one of the state’s 18 U.S. House districts with a chance of flipping party representation in the fall, the Democratic nominee will face attorney and conservative Republican Keith Rothfus, who lost a heartbreakingly close race to Altmire in 2010.

In the 18th District, Murphy has been under fire for voting often with organized labor.  Feinberg, a 28-year-old former staffer for Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), has raised considerable funds from outside groups ranging from the pro-home-schooling Madison Project to the Campaign for Public Accountability (which has focused its fire against long-standing House incumbents nationwide and helped take out Republican Jean Schmidt in Ohio).  Last week, Public Accountability announced it was ending its expenditure on Feinberg’s behalf because five-termer Murphy has raised so much against the opponent he calls “the kid.”  But no one writes off his challenge.

By far the most tumultuous contest is that for the Senate nomination.  In the last few weeks, venture capitalist Steve Welch and coal mine owner Tom Smith — both millionaires – have spent heavily from their respective fortunes to attack one another as phony Republicans.  Welch (who has the endorsement of the State Republican Party Committee and Gov. Tom Corbett) attacks Smith for being a former Democratic officeholder and only joining the GOP less than two years ago, while Smith fires back at Welch for admittedly voting for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary and contributing to far-left former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak.

Many conservatives hope this rancor will benefit the third major contender, former State Rep. Sam Rohrer.  As the head of Pennsylvania’s Americans for Prosperity Group and favorite of much of the state tea party movement, Rohrer has ignored his high-spending foes and concentrated on wooing grass-roots conservatives.  Whether his following among “movement” conservatives will be enough to stop the major dollars of Welch and Smith will be an important story Tuesday night.

So, even with the presidential contest no longer much of a contest, no one can truthfully say Pennsylvania’s primary April 24 is boring.