On heels of Utah election, May 18 contests are next test of anti-Washington sentiment

Jon Ward Contributor
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Pencil down May 18 as the next signpost of how strong the country’s anti-establishment political winds are blowing, after Utah Republicans delivered a shock to the system Saturday by dispatching Sen. Robert Bennett in a party primary.

A week from Tuesday, House Republicans will be looking to western Pennsylvania, where a special election to fill the seat held by Democrat John Murtha for 36 years looks like a good bet to switch parties.

Many Republicans believe a win there by Republican businessman Tim Burns will mean that they’re headed for a pickup of as many as 50 seats this fall, far more than the 40 they need to take back the House.

In Kentucky the GOP has a bit of a civil war on its hands in the Senate primary to replace Sen. Jim Bunning. Free market populist Rand Paul looks poised to upset Trey Grayson, the secretary of state who has been endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is also from Kentucky.

In Pennsylvania, the same part of the state that produced the Whiskey Rebellion may provide some clues to the strength of anti-Washington sentiment, even though Democrats are doing everything in their power to minimize national issues.

“Democrats have a challenge heading into the 2010 election,” said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, on CNN Saturday. “Republicans are going to do very well in the midterm elections. If you’re a Democratic candidate out there, obviously you want to try to localize the election.”

Some Republicans think the results of the House special election will signal whether they’ll retake the House with ease. House Republicans need to pick up 40 seats. Senior Republican operatives are throwing the number 50 around as a real possibility.

If Republican Tim Burns takes Murtha’s seat after 36 years of Democratic control – and despite a two-to-one voter registration advantage in Pennsylvania’s 12th District – some say that means the GOP will hit the high end of estimated pickups this fall.

Other Republicans are concerned that some in their party are getting ahead of themselves.

“The expectations game is a dangerous one that I fear could lull the center-right into complacency,” said Rob Collins, executive director of the American Action Network, a newly organized conservative political group that is sending busloads of volunteers to knock on doors for Burns next Saturday.

But Collins too expressed measured optimism.

“A win in PA-12 is just that–one win,” Collins said, “but I do think it shows continued momentum which should send a signal to Congressional watchers that the House and quite possibly the Senate are in play.”

Democrats do have one thing working in their favor in Pennsylvania: a very public Democratic Senate primary between Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak will mean good turnout.

Nonetheless, Burns appears to have a good shot of beating a former top aide to Murtha, Democrat Mark Critz. Several recent polls have shown Burns a few points ahead of Critz.

One Democratic campaign operative acknowledged that Critz faces some severe headwinds.

“It’s a district where Democrats and President Obama in particular are extremely unpopular,” the operative said.

But for the most part, Democrats are furiously trying to downplay the national factors at play, focusing on the fact that despite the high number of Democrats, the district is very conservative.

“This is a race for Republicans that should be a slam dunk,” said the Democratic operative, citing Obama’s approval rating in the mid-30’s.

Murtha’s district encompasses old steel and coal country, and Critz has had to run away from his party’s pursuit of cap and trade energy policies. He also said he opposed the Obama’s health bill, after it passed, but he does not support repealing the new law.

Critz has gone after Burns for the sale of his technology software company in 2002, saying it resulted in the loss of 58 jobs in western Pennsylvania. The veracity of that number has not been verified, though Burns has not refuted the idea that the sale cost some jobs.

Burns said his company created 400 new jobs in the state.

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