The John Murtha Seat: Pennsylvania Special Election Appears to be Close by Gregory Hilton

PHOTO: Senator Scott Brown (R-MA), left, is shown in Pennsylvania on Friday with congressional candidate Tim Burns.

The May 18th special election to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Rep. John Murtha (D) appears to be headed for a photo finish. The poll results are conflicting and they are all within the margin of error. Furthermore, polling in special elections is often unreliable.
Rep. Murtha was Chairman of the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and was the campaign manager of Nancy Pelosi’s bid to become House Speaker. The late Congressman was retired Marine Corps colonel when he was first elected to the House in 1973 after serving in Vietnam.
For decades he was one of the Democratic Party’s best known hawks on defense issues until he switched many positions in 2001 when George Bush took office. Murtha became a vigorous foe of the Iraq War, and had Pelosi’s support when he unsuccessfully challenged Steny Hoyer to be House Majority Leader. Murtha died on February 10th of this year and in the race to succeed him Republican Tim Burns, 42, had a narrow lead for most of the past month.
However, in the final week two surveys have been published which give the edge to Democrat Mark Critz, 48, who was Murtha’s chief of staff. Republicans have not won this district since the 1930s, and Democrats have a significant registration edge.
The district has been substantially altered from the seat Murtha first won in 1973. Only one-third of the original Johnstown-based district remains. The Democrats also have a significant turnout advantage in that they have highly competitive primaries for both Governor and Senator, while the GOP contests have been decided.
According to the liberal website Daily Kos:

While much has been made of the fact that PA-12 was the only CD in the nation to flip from John Kerry to John McCain in 2008, that’s a pretty arbitrary metric. The real story is that it was one of just 35 CDs (out of 435) where Barack Obama got a smaller share of the vote than Kerry did. So while the nation as a whole was voting a whole lot more Democratic, PA-12 took a step in the other direction. And it shows in two other key poll numbers.
Obama’s approval in the district is just 38-55. Just as troubling, only 34% of voters say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports healthcare reform, while 48% are more likely to pull the lever for someone who advocates repeal. This helps explain why Critz has said he would have voted against HCR, but with this kind of headwind, that may not make much of a difference.

Al Gore won this district it by 11% in 2000, John Kerry kept it in the Democratic column by just 2% in 2004, and Barack Obama lost it by less than 1,000 votes. According to this week’s Politico:

If Burns is victorious, it will reinforce — if not altogether cement — the notion that no Democratic seat is safe this year and that, after three recent statewide wins, Republicans are still on the march. ’Republicans can take a seat away from Democrats and show that there is a wave coming in their favor, and Democrats can protect their margins while impacting how people perceive the political environment,” said AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman. . . ‘This is one of those moments where the people of Pennsylvania have an opportunity to not only send a good man to Congress in Tim Burns but also to send a deafening message to Washington, D.C.,’ said Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, the No. 3 House Republican, who has stumped in the district.

Democrat Critz is campaigning as a moderate. He is pro-life, opposes gun control and the President’s health care reform bill. He has the solid backing of the AFL-CIO even though they are trying to defeat other Democrats who opposed the health care bill. Burns is a former health industry CEO. He organized the first tea party in the district, and was one of the major speakers. He said “the government’s massive spending is unsustainable” and explained how it would be damaging to future generations. After this he began to speak at tea parties around Pennsylvania. Both campaigns are well funded, and whoever wins, both candidates will meet again in November.

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