Republicans aim for a Scott Brown-style upset in Pennsylvania

Republicans are gunning for the House seat of the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania. They hope Tuesday's special election will replicate Scott Brown's 'Massachusetts miracle.'

Keith Srakocic/AP
Republican candidate Tim Burns talks with patrons at a fish fry in New Germany, Pa. He is running for the seat held for 36 years by the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha, which he hopes he can win much like Scott Brown did in Massachusetts.

Call it “Scott Brown, the sequel.” With a “tea party” rebellion at his back, Republican businessman Tim Burns aims to turn a sprawling district in Pennsylvania’s once mighty coal, iron, and steel heartland into the next “Massachusetts miracle” in a May 18 special congressional election.

“Why am I running for Congress? Meet one of the biggest reasons,” says Mr. Burns in his first television ad, which features a mug shot of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Pelosi’s big-government, liberal agenda is destroying America.”

New to electoral politics, Burns is facing Democrat Mark Critz, a former aide to Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, whose death on Feb. 8 prompted a special election to fill his unexpired term.

While Mr. Murtha never attained the national iconic status of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy (D), he was a giant in his own district. Over his 36 years in the House, Murtha muscled billions in defense and infrastructure spending to this struggling region. The race to replace him has drawn national attention – and campaign funding – as an early referendum on the Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress.

“This election is everything but local. It’s a referendum on [Senate majority leader Harry] Reid, Pelosi, and Obama, and it could be a barometer for the rest of the nation,” says Joseph DiSarro, a political scientist at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa.

“These are the voters that will make or break the Democrats in November and in 2012 – the moderate, conservative Democrats known as Reagan Democrats and independents. They’re pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-church and family, and they want limited government,” he adds.

At the same time, the region’s swath of near-abandoned mining towns illustrates the need for the federal help that Murtha long directed to this region.

Campaigning in jeans and a tweed jacket, Burns tells local activists at the College Town Diner in Waynesburg that the Obama/Pelosi health-care bill must be rolled back and that the Democrats’ energy bill is a “direct attack” on mining.

“This district contains the solution to America’s energy problems,” Burns says, noting that two of the largest coal mines in the world and vast natural-gas reserves are here. “The Department of Energy is supposed to make us energy independent. Instead, they’re the ones preventing us from being energy independent in western Pennsylvania. Just think of the jobs we could create here,” he adds.

In their first debate on May 5, the candidates scrapped over whether the special election should be understood as a referendum on Washington Democrats. “You have a choice between someone who supports Nancy Pelosi’s health-care bill and someone who will go to Washington and fight to repeal it,” said Burns in his opening statement. Said Mr. Critz: “This campaign is not about Washington, D.C., it’s about Washington, Pa.”

The special election is complicated by a parallel cycle to elect a candidate for a full term beginning in 2011. “You’ve got to vote for me twice,” Critz said at the opening of a campaign office in Uniontown, Pa., to chuckles from activists and local officials. “No, I mean it! You have got to vote for me twice: Once for the special election, and once for the primary.”

Critz, too, is facing voters for the first time and running on Murtha’s legacy, but not necessarily his politics. Critz tells voters that he opposed the health-care bill; that he does not support the energy legislation passed by House Democrats, including Murtha, in 2009; and that he is “pro-life and pro-gun.”

While Murtha was closely allied with Speaker Pelosi, Critz says he has no plans to invite her or President Obama to campaign with him. “The speaker is not coming up here. This is my race, and I want to win western Pennsylvania,” he said, after opening a new campaign headquarters in Uniontown April 12. But a week later, he attended a fundraiser in Washington in his honor, hosted by Pelosi.

Meanwhile, national parties are targeting major resources on this race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched its first ad on “tax day,” April 15, slamming Burns for supporting a plan to replace the income tax with a national sales tax. The National Republican Congressional Committee invested in two weeks of TV ads linking Critz to the Obama-Pelosi health-care plan on the theme that “liberals like Mark Critz didn’t listen.”

Burns is self-financing 40 percent of his campaign costs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. Critz is drawing heavily on contributions from businesses that won federal contracts on Murtha’s watch and from House Democratic leadership political action committees (PACs), including $10,000 from Murtha’s majority PAC.

“Nancy Pelosi is a smart lady. She isn’t working so hard to get Mark Critz elected because he’s a nice person, which he is. She’s working so hard with Obama, sending [Vice President] Joe Biden to campaign for Mark, because she knows that once he’s elected he will be one more vote for her liberal agenda,” said Burns during the May 5 debate.

“Tim, you don’t know me very well,” countered Critz. “Nobody tells me what to do. I do what I think is right.”

In the past few weeks, both sides have stepped up personal attacks.

Most polls show the special election as too close to call, but a private poll by Global Strategy Group signals that Critz is gaining ground. The poll shows Critz is leading Burns by eight points, up from a three-point lead in mid-April. A Daily Kos poll shows Burns up by six points.


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