Bill Clinton helps decide a Democratic fight in Pennsylvania; will he intervene in New Jersey, too?

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Bill Clinton on the stump. ()
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The surprise outcome of a Democratic congressional primary in western Pennsylvania last night could serve as a source of hope for one of the region’s most endangered House members.

New Jersey’s Bill Pascrell, a punchy 75-year-old Democrat who has represented the Paterson area in the House since 1996, is waging an uphill battle against fellow Democrat Steve Rothman. The two men were good friends until just before Christmas, when new congressional lines forced Rothman to make a choice: He could stay in his hometown of Fair Lawn, which was moved into a Republican-friendly district represented by archconservative Scott Garrett, or he could move a few miles and run in Pascrell’s district, which suddenly included a big chunk of Rothman’s Bergen County base. Rothman chose survival over friendship, and New Jersey’s most interesting congressional primary in years was on.

Geography has made Rothman the consensus pick to win the June 5 primary. Population-wise, 54 percent of the 9th District’s residents are already represented by Rothman. And when you consider just registered Democrats—the voting universe for the primary—that number swells to 61 percent.

To win, Pascrell will need huge numbers from Paterson and the four other Passaic County communities in the district, and he’ll also need to make inroads into Bergen County, where the Democratic organization is squarely behind Rothman, its favorite son. It’s not an impossible task, but in the parochial, machine-intense world of New Jersey politics, it’s a formidable one.

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Which is where the race in Pennsylvania’s 12th District comes in. There, as in New Jersey’s 9th, redistricting forced two incumbent Democratic congressmen, Jason Altmire and Mark Critz, into a primary. The 44-year-old Altmire, a moderate who had held a Republican-friendly seat since 2006, was favored; about two-thirds of the merged district came from his turf. But when the votes were counted last night, Critz eked out a four-point upset.

At 50, Critz is a quarter-century younger than Pascrell. But they have a few things in common. Both are traditional lunch-pail Democrats with natural appeal to blue-collar voters. Organized labor invested heavily in Critz’s primary fight, partly to reward him for his support and partly to make an example of Altmire, who voted against health care reform in 2010. Pascrell is also the labor candidate in his fight, though he doesn’t enjoy quite the same level of union support Critz did, at least not yet.

And both also have deep ties to the late congressman John Murtha, the long-serving Pennsylvania Democrat who died in 2010. Critz was Murtha’s political disciple and succeeded him in Congress while Pascrell was a close friend and ally of Murtha, and would sit with him in his “Pennsylvania Corner” of the House.

And then there’s the Bill Clinton factor. The former president came through with an invaluable endorsement of Critz two weeks before the primary. Presumably, residual Clinton family affection for Murtha, who was helpful to Bill during his presidency and who endorsed Hillary in her 2008 presidential campaign, played a role in this. The grief that Altmire caused the Clintons in ’08—he flirted with endorsing Hillary before the crucial Pennsylvania primary, only to stay neutral—was surely a factor too. There’s a similar story in the New Jersey contest: Pascrell was an early Hillary supporter, while Rothman chaired Obama’s Garden State campaign.

For Pascrell, this could be a fertile piece of common ground. It’s no secret that Bill Clinton has been using congressional endorsements to reward his wife’s ’08 friends and to punish her enemies, but he’s neutral so far in the Pascrell-Rothman contest. Which means it might be a good time for the congressman from Paterson to place a phone call to Harlem.