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.