Race for Murtha’s seat may be decisive in interpretation of Tuesday election results

Jon Ward Contributor
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No matter who wins the special election in Pennsylvania Tuesday to replace the late congressman Jack Murtha, the two national political parties will interpret it to their benefit.

Whichever party triumphs will claim it as a sign of national trends in its favor. Whoever loses will say it was the result of local factors that are not indicative of the national climate.

“It’s going to be hard to tell you what it means until I know the results,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday.

In fact, the results in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District may tip the balance in how all of Tuesday’s races — with huge intra-party fights in primaries in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas — are viewed.

The Republican establishment candidate in Kentucky, Trey Grayson, is expected to lose to Tea Party favorite Rand Paul. And in Arkansas, Democratic incumbent Blanche Lincoln may not reach 50 percent support, requiring her to go to a runoff election.

In Pennsylvania, incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican-turned-Democrat, may lose to primary challenger Rep. Joe Sestak, despite being backed by President Obama and the national Democratic party, as well as the labor unions.

If Specter did lose, the subsequent embarrassment for Obama and the White House could color Tuesday’s contests and become the dominant theme.

Nonetheless, the three Senate races – with Washington-backed candidates in both parties either going down or teetering on the edge of defeat – will buttress a storyline that says the national mood is as much anti-Washington, if not more than anti-Democrat. That’s still not good for Democrats, who currently control the White House and both houses of Congress, but it’s less bad.

Even the White House has begun to lay the groundwork for an anti-Washington storyline.

“The real divide isn’t between Republicans and Democrats. It’s America and Washington,” a senior White House official told Obama administration confidante Richard Wolffe.

The special election in Pennsylvania, noted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is “the only Republican vs. Democratic election” on Tuesday.

Both sides have poured money into the race — more than $2 million in all — because they know that it will do much to shape perceptions of how each party will fare in midterm elections this fall.

Republican businessman Tim Burns had the momentum in the race until a slew of negative attacks by long time Murtha aide Mark Critz and labor unions against Burns helped Critz surge back.

A poll by Public Policy Polling on Monday gave Burns 48 percent to Critz’s 47 percent.

“I’m gonna say it’s a toss-up,” Rob Bantly, a hardware store owner in Johnstown, told The Daily Caller Monday.

“Maybe I’m being too optimistic. In my neighborhood it’s heavily Democratic but there are a ton of Burns signs up.”

If the 48-year-old Critz wins, the White House and the national party will say it shows they are able to hold on to vulnerable seats in a tough political environment and are not headed for a landslide loss this fall.

Republicans will point to a two-to-one edge for Democrats in registered voters in PA-12 and to Critz’s ability to run on Murtha’s name.

If the 42-year-old Burns wins, the GOP will say it is a continuation in the trend of races in New Jersey and Massachusetts, where the party picked up a governorship and Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, taking over in what have been Democratic strongholds.

It will be another sign of growing momentum toward a huge transfer of power this fall and a likely Republican takeover of the House.

“The fact that we are competing in a district that favors Democrats by a two-to-one margin is a testament to the quality of our candidate in Tim Burns and the toxic political environment that is a direct result of the Obama-Pelosi agenda,” said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Democrats will argue, if Burns wins, that PA-12 is a conservative congressional district – Critz has campaigned as a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat who is against President Obama’s health-care law – that does not represent the mood of independents.

Democrats have had some success in shaping expectations for the race. The DCCC sent out a release late Monday quoting several political analysts as saying the race is a “must-win for Republicans.”

What makes the Pennsylvania special an imperfect sampling of national opinion, however, is that Murtha’s old constituents don’t necessarily share fully in the country’s anti-incumbent mood. Murtha – who died in February from complications after gallbladder surgery – was famous for bringing home the bacon to his district, especially through securing large defense contracts for businesses.

“I got my first job because Jack Murtha made a phone call to a local committee man. He did a million of those kinds of things,” said Tom Chulick, a restaurant owner in Johnstown.

Chulick also noted in a phone interview that Critz won’t have the same status and influence that Murtha did because of his chairmanship of a defense appropriations subcommittee.

“Critz isn’t going to have that kind of sway, maybe not ever,” Chulick said. “God rest his soul, Jack Murtha’s dead. And that kind of influence is not going to be felt in this district for a long, long time.”

There is a Rorschach test-type quality to the PA-12 contest that extends down to how different voters see the candidates.

“Burns is an honest straight shooter. He grew up here. I know his family,” said Bantly, the hardware store owner.

But Chulick said he’d received a different report about Burns from a woman who was a grade-school teacher when Burns was in the fifth grade.

“She said he was a pain in the ass then too,” Chulick said.

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