PA-12: A template for Democrats in November election?

Democrat Mark Critz won the special election Tuesday in PA-12 – a Pennsylvania congressional district where President Obama has a 35 percent approval rating. In some ways, his campaign could be a model for Democrats in the November election.

Keith Srakocic/AP
Democrat Mark Critz greets supporters in Johnstown, Pa., Tuesday after winning the special election for the congressional seat vacated by the death of long time congressman John Murtha. His victory in PA-12 could be a model for how Democrats can succeed in the November election.

Democrats are touting their victory in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District (PA-12) – which kept the seat in Democratic hands, despite the anti-Washington mood among voters – as a template for how to win other tough House races in the November election.

The model, as followed by now Rep.-elect Mark Critz (D) of Pennsylvania, goes like this:

Keep it local, not national. Don’t even talk about President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Define your opponent early and often, as negatively as possible.

Hold positions that match the views of your district – in Mr. Critz’s case, it meant being anti-abortion and pro-gun. It also meant opposing the just-passed health-care reform (though Critz adds that he would not repeal it) and the climate change “cap and trade” bill.

In some ways, Critz’s situation was unique, so his model isn’t fully duplicable. The member he was replacing is John Murtha, a beloved figure in western Pennsylvania, who died in February. Congressman Murtha held the seat for 35 years and was a local legend.

Critz was an aide to Murtha, so while he had the Washington-insider thing going (bad) he was also able to draw on his connection to Murtha (good) and has promised to keep federal money flowing into the district. He was also able to pick and choose when he would wear the Murtha mantle and when he would not. Murtha had voted for health-care reform and cap-and-trade, for example, while Critz says he opposed both.

Of course, there are lots of endangered Democrats looking to be reelected who can’t credibly say, “Oh, just kidding” about their votes for health-care reform and cap and trade. So they will have a harder time finessing those issues than Critz did.

Even after the Critz victory, “the road ahead doesn’t necessarily get easier for Democrats,” writes Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “Critz was pro-life, pro-gun, and opposed the health-care reform that many vulnerable Democratic incumbents supported.”

Following Tuesday’s election, the Rothenberg report has moved the seat from “tossup” to “lean Democratic” for the November election. Tuesday's election was a special election to fill the seat, but Critz – like the rest of the House – will face reelection this fall. Again, Republican businessman Tim Burns will be his opponent.

The Critz victory also raises questions about how useful Mr. Obama can be to Democrats heading into the fall races. In the last six months, he’s had a pretty abysmal record – watching Democrats lose the governorship in New Jersey and Virginia and a Senate race in Massachusetts, all after Obama visits.

Obama opted to steer clear of Pennsylvania ahead of Tuesday’s races. Not that an Obama visit was ever on the radar for PA-12; he has only 35 percent job approval in the district. But a rally with Obama in more friendly territory was a possibility for Sen. Arlen Specter (D), who was locked in a tough primary battle that he ultimately lost. No one is claiming that an Obama visit could have helped.

The answer on Obama is the same as it has been for past presidents: The president’s political team and the local candidates will choose his campaign appearances carefully, but he can be very useful for fundraising among the party faithful.


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