Rep. John Murtha dies

Rep. John Murtha died this afternoon due to complications following gallbladder surgery. The 77-year old had represented Western Pennsylvania in the House since winning a special election in 1974, which made him the chamber’s 8th most senior member in the current Congress.

A longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, he directed billions of dollars towards his district and his hometown of Johnstown, a hard-hit region that came to rely on Murtha’s unapologetically aggressive earmarking. Murtha was also a close ally of Nancy Pelosi, and he played a key role in helping the California congresswoman rise in the Democratic leadership. In 2006, Pelosi backed his bid to become Majority Leader in the aftermath of the 2006 midterms.  Murtha lost to Rep. SteveSteny Hoyer but he moved on to chair the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, which made him all the more powerful.

Murtha’s final years in Congress will perhaps be best known for his decision to call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops out of Iraq in early 2005; his statement came at a time the Democratic establishment was still largely hostile to withdrawal, and the generally hawkish Murtha, with his strong ties to the defense industries, was the last congressman who would have been expected to lead his party towards an anti-war stance. This led to an ugly incident on the House floor when GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt called Murtha a coward, leading to ten minutes of chaos that ended with Schmidt withdrawing her comments. Yet, in his final years Murtha also attracted criticism over his stance on ethics reform and over corruption allegations against groups in his entourage. While Murtha himself was never investigated, questions arose over his ties to the PMA Group, a lobbying shop raised by the FBI in 2008 that had been able to secure hundreds of millions of dollars of earmarks from Murtha, as well as to other organizations.

I will let you dig more information about Murtha in news outlets like The Washington Post and will move on to this blog’s main beat: What happens next in PA-12? With Murtha’s district now vacant, a special election will be organized, yet another major headache for Democrats at a time they cannot ill afford any more electoral setbacks.

Located in southwestern Pennsylvania, this district is the type of area in which Democrats once dominated but are now struggling as Appalachia’s formerly coal-mining, working-class electorate moved away from the party and towards the GOP. In fact, PA-12 is the only district in the country to have switched from John Kerry in 2004 to John McCain in 2008; in 2000, Al Gore had prevailed by 11%, which means the district took significant rightward drift over the past decade.

In short: The DCCC has to defend a McCain district with voters who were predisposed to punishing Democrats even before they were disproportionately affected by the economic crisis; this makes for a strong pick-up opportunity for Republicans.

However, numerous factors should favor Democrats, the first of which is the election’s timing.

State law gives Governor Ed Rendell 10 days to call a special election, which has to be scheduled at least 60 days after his proclamation. It is highly likely Rendell will choose to hold the general election on May 18th, which is the day of Pennsylvania’s regularly scheduled primaries. Why might that help the Democratic nominee? Democrats are hosting two highly competitive primaries for the Senate and Governor’s races while the Republican primaries are largely uncontested at this point. That means turnout should be higher among Democratic voters, who will have many other reasons to go out to the polls than to vote for Murtha’s successor.

Consider that May 18th will mark the culmination of the rough Specter-Sestak battle, which is now starting to heat up and on which millions will be spent by Election Day; that should sure boost Democratic turnout. Consider also that one of the front-runners in the party’s gubernatorial primary is Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, who will put together a heavy turnout machine in Western Pennsylvania, which is his geographic base (in fact, parts of Allegheny County are in PA-12). Some unions are sure to be heavily involved in both Democratic primaries, and as such they will be major players in turning out voters in PA-12, which is heavily unionized.

Whether they are going to the polls to vote for Specter or Sestak, Onorato or Jack Wagner, most of these Democratic voters will be likely to also punch the ballot for whoever Democrats nominate in the PA-12 special election. The Republican nominee should receive less help, as there will be less players ensuring GOP voters head to the polls (Tom Corbett and Pat Toomey don’t face much competition in the statewide primaries).

Second, PA-12 is mostly Democratic at the local level, which means that the party has a strong bench to choose from.

That should not only also guarantee Democrats not suffer the same fate as in KS-3 or LA-3, open seats in which they are struggling to field a candidate, but that they will have a solid contender. Names that are mentioned include Mark Singel, who served as Lieutenant Governor from 1987 to 1995; state Senator John Wozniak, who has represented Johnstown since 1996; state Senator Richard Kasunic, who has been serving since 1994; state Rep. Bryan Barbin; state Rep. Tad Harhai; and still many other state legislators. (State Rep. Bill DeWeese, who once served as state Speaker, probably cannot run given the criminal charges he is now facing.) The Republican bench is far weaker. The GOP has two candidates currently in the race, Tim Burns and William Russell, its 2008 nominee whom conservatives rallied behind late in the cycle; the NRCC spent more than $1 million on his behalf in the campaign’s final weeks.

The twist: Pennsylvania special elections have no primaries. Just as happens in New York (as we learned in 2009 with vacancies in NY-20 and NY-23), a committee of county party chairs meets to determine a candidate.

This should create quite a confusing situation: Whoever the county chairs place on the general election ballot will not have first established their legitimacy through a primary vote, which means these anointed candidates could face challenges from other members of the party for the right to be the nominee on November’s regularly scheduled ballot. And here is where things get really complicated: If Rendell calls the special election on May 18th, the special election’s general election and the regular election’s primary races will be held on the same day!

This could mean that whoever is nominated in the special election has to fight the opposing party’s candidate while at the same time battling opponents from his own party. If such scenarios occur, all bets are off as to how much support the candidates can expect from their party’s base and how united the respective camps will be. (It’s difficult to predict which party is most at risk here: Democrats have a deeper bench, and thus more potential for politicians seeking to move up, but as we saw in NY-23 the GOP electorate’s mood makes Republicans more receptive to ideological disagreements.)

In short, the PA-12 special has the potential to be just as wild as that in NY-23. While I have tried to argue Democrats have a stronger chance than we would think based on the fact that McCain won the district, there is no question that the DCCC is at serious risk of seeing its streak of 9 consecutive special election victories interrupted.

12 Responses to “Rep. John Murtha dies”

  1. 1 Anonymous

    Small point, it is Steny Hoyer not Steve.

    About time the GOP broke the Democrats record of 9 straight special election victories. Give some posters on here something to cheer, even if it comes on the back of someone dying.

    Great post about the implications of the primary and special election being on the same day (if that is what actually happens).

  2. 2 Cliff

    Uhh, I seem to remember the GOP winning a rather significant special election a few weeks ago…

    Anyhow, I think it’s worth mentioning that McCain only won this district by 1500 votes or something like that.

    I think you’re right about the primary, it will help the D. We’ll see, however. It’s going to be a weird race.

  3. 3 Taniel

    Cliff, I did say I was talking about the DCCC’s streak of special election victories, so Massachusetts does not enter that: You have to admit that the DCCC has pulled off an unlikely streak there, since 5 of these 9 victories can be considered upsets (LA-6, MS-1, OH-14, NY-23, NY-20).

  4. 4 Cliff

    Ah, missed the DCCC thing. You’re right about that.

  5. 5 gerard

    The 12th district meanders through 9 different counties, so it could be a challenge for anyone can lock up the vote amongst all of these county committees. Former Lt. Gov. Singel would seem to have an advantage here, although the 2 state Senators mentioned are obviously currently in the game. Singel has less to loss from redistricting and could of course pull strings to help his own new district. The state senators might not want to risk their safe seats for a new congressional seat that will be redrawn next year, although both are long term incumbents and could also have some pull with the state legislature even if they leave the Pa. State Senate to go on to the US Congress.

  6. 6 Taniel


    I try to remember to think about redistricting, but on this one thank you for reminding me as I completely forgot. Pennsylvania is slated to lose a congressional seat next year. While I doubt we will be able to point to one specific seat as having been eliminated (the way LA-03 is expected to be drawn out of existence in Louisiana), I imagine Western Pennsylvania’s map will be especially shuffled so whoever wins the special election might have to campaign in a different district soonafter. On the other hand: I expect there to be other freshmen congressmen in Pennsylvania come January 2011, not to mention that the potential retirements of congressmen like Kanjorski could help the legislature create more havoc in Northeastern Pennsylvania than in the Western part.

    In any case, a lot will depend on who controls the legislating process. Democrats are now underdogs in the Governor’s race, which makes it critically important that they defend their tenuous House majority.

  7. 7 Anonymous

    Taniel, I wouldn`t expect Cliff to admit the Democrats have done well in so many special elections since it goes against the dominant conventional wisdom (and we know how that can look soooo wrong in retrospective) of the Dems being inept, stupid and the GOP being all conquering.

  8. 8 MSW

    The Democrats have won several special elections since 2006, but we should look at the factors that are involved. With IL-14 and LA-6, the Democrats had the superior candidates and the nation had a strong Democratic tilt. With MS-1, both parties had good candidates, but Childers was able to win because he had conservative credentials. Many of the Southern districts will support Democratic candidates because these candidates are much more conservative than the Democratic party.

    With NY-20, the Republican candidate imploded. NY-23 was eerily similar, with a Conservative able to make the Republican candidate withdraw. Dede ended up endorsing Owens, so that probably put him over the top.

    PA-12 has a strong Democratic bench. While the McCain won this district, albeit barely, Gore and Kerry won this district (as it is drawn now) in 2000 and 2004. However, the Republicans have the momentum on the national front. This will be a close race, and it really depends on who the candidates are. If the Democrats pick a strong candidate, it will be the Democrats race to lose. Just like it was for Coakley.

  9. 9 Cliff

    Taniel, I wouldn`t expect Cliff to admit the Democrats have done well in so many special elections since it goes against the dominant conventional wisdom (and we know how that can look soooo wrong in retrospective) of the Dems being inept, stupid and the GOP being all conquering.

    What is up with people on this cite making $#!t up, attributing it to me, then saying why obviously I am wrong about something that I never said?

    I swear, just about every single person on this cite does this. It’s very annoying. I don’t mind defending my actual positions. I grow tired of defending positions I never took.

    I never DENIED that Dems have done well in special elections in the past couple of years. That much is obvious. What I denied was that they got a clean sweep, which they didn’t. The most significant special election was in Massachusetts, and we won it. I didn’t notice Taniel’s qualifier of the DCCC.

    And the idea that I have portrayed the GOP as “all conquering” is absolutely absurd to any rational reading of anything I’ve ever said around here. I’ve FREQUENTLY said I expect certain Republican candidates to lose, or that I think they will run a strong race but I recognize the odds are against them.

    I have pushed back against really stupid things people have said around here, say, for example, that Dennis Moore’s retirement doesn’t really matter because the D’s are still slightly favored to hold the seat. I said that the D’s won’t likely even field a top tier challenger and won’t fund a lesser challenger. With Joe Reardon’s exit from consideration, I’ve pretty much been proven right on that seat.

    The Republicans are likely to gain at least 30 seats in the house and 6-8 in the Senate. It is not out of bounds to see them retaking the House. I wouldn’t go so far as Dick Morris to say they are going to take the Senate, but it’s not really that much of a longshot then them taking the Senate in ‘80. That isn’t to say they will retake either house, just that it’s possible, very possible in the case of the house, although the odds are probably slightly less then 50/50 for the house and about 10/90 in the Senate.

  10. 10 deleted

    Cliff, you said “Uhh, I seem to remember the GOP winning a rather significant special election a few weeks ago…” you harp on about one special Senate election. Yes it was a good victory (with 53% of the vote). But then you dismiss 9 special House elections. Obviously a senator matter but so do 9 congressmen.

    Cliff, I can see why you get annoyed with people extrapoloating, maybe incorrectly, your positions. But you come across, sometimes, as very partisan and seeing no wrong on the GOP side and no good on the Democratic side. If you just continued to engage in reasoned discussion (like your last paragraph) then you would not get as many people complaining and “picking” on you.

  11. 11 deleted

    Obviously Cliff has given up trying to use his version of reason.

  12. 12 Cliff

    Obviously Cliff has given up trying to use his version of reason.

    Actually, I’ve given up on talking to you.

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