GOP winner Keith Rothfus previously ran for Congress in 2010, when he narrowly lost to 4th District Democrat Jason Altmire. This time around, he was able to take advantage of redistricting that awarded Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs, which lean heavily Republican and were mostly new to Democratic Rep. Mark Critz, to the 12th District.
Rothfus grew up in Endicott, N.Y., near Binghamton, casting his first vote for Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980. “When Ronald Reagan started talking about empowering people in the private sector, keeping tax rates low, it made a lot of sense to me,” he said in an interview. “He brought peace through strength. He respected traditional values.”
Rothfus attended Buffalo State College, part of the State University of New York, where he graduated in 1984 with a degree in information systems. He worked for IBM for three years, then attended Notre Dame Law School.
He began his law career as a litigator in Pittsburgh and became an associate dean at the Regent University School of Law. He later returned to Pittsburgh to work at a law firm, where he negotiated commercial contracts. But he soon entered politics, working on faith-based initiatives starting in 2004 in the George W. Bush administration, first in the Housing and Urban Development Department and later for the Homeland Security Department. In 2007, Rothfus established a private practice in Pittsburgh.
Although he was always interested in public policy, Rothfus said he never thought he would run for office. That changed in 2009, when he looked for a candidate to support in his local congressional race for six months before deciding to put his own name forward. Passage in Congress of the $787 billion economic stimulus in 2009—and the debt it added to the country—heightened his interest. The challenge was daunting: Not only did Rothfus plan to run in a district that leaned Democratic but he also was an underdog in his own Republican primary against former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. With tea party support, Rothfus pulled an upset in the 2010 primary, easily defeating the error-prone Buchanan, and he nearly won a shocker on Election Day, falling to the well-funded Altmire by fewer than 2 percentage points.
His near victory pushed him to run again in 2012, this time facing Critz instead of Altmire. Critz stressed his moderate credentials—he supports gun owners’ rights and opposes abortion rights—and sought to tie Rothfus to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s controversial plans for overhauling Medicare. Rothfus responded by linking Critz to President Obama and listed as his top priorities the “Three Rs”: repealing “Obamacare,” reforming tax and spending policies, and rolling back regulation. He also called for transforming southwest Pennsylvania into an energy capital. The race was regarded as a toss-up, as polls showed Critz’s early lead vanishing as the election drew closer.
Rothfus said that his background in commercial negotiations should give him the skills necessary to bring members of both parties together. “I like to fix problems,” he said. “I have a reputation in my professional work, negotiating contracts, where I’ve gone into deals where other people haven’t closed the deal, and I’ve been able to get it done. We need to work with people of goodwill in both parties and start to tackle problems we have.”
Alex Roarty contributed to this article.