Will Pennsylvania 12 be another New York 23?

Will “establishment” Republicans in Pennsylvania’s 12th District this year make the same error as their counterparts in New York’s 23rd District did last year?

Pa-12 — now an open seat after the recent death of longtime Rep. John Murtha — may be the scene of the same kind of “Scozzafava” drama we saw last year in New York.  

Two reasons indicate that could happen:  First, that the nomination process precludes a primary, leaving the nomination to insiders; and second, those insiders may not be willing to nominate a dyed-in-the-wool conservative to  run in a sure-to-be-watched special election for Congress this May.

Will the establishment GOPers not only blow an opportunity for a net gain in the House, but also exacerbate relations with the growing “tea party” movement — again, repeating the error that party insiders made in New York-23 with the nomination of liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava?

Very few pundits and pols in Western Pennsylvania wanted to talk on the record about the special election for Congress resulting from the sudden death of  Murtha on Monday (February 8).  It was just too soon to talk after the passing of the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress. At age 77, Murtha was a powerful Member of the House Armed Services Committee and after 36 years in Congress, a true “prince of pork” who made earmarks a virtual “jobs bill” for his home district.

But where few were willing to speak for attribution about what happens next, I did get an accurate sketch of politics post-Murtha in the 12th District.  After the late congressman’s funeral and a brief period of mourning, a vacancy will be declared in his House seat.  Both major parties will have a brief time — very likely two weeks — to nominate candidates for a special election that will almost surely be held on May 18th (the same date as the Keystone State’s primaries for statewide, legislative, and congressional offices).

So far, so good.  However, state election law does not provide for primaries in special elections.  The mechanism for both parties’ selecting nominees in special elections in Pennsylvania is “inside baseball.”  For Republicans, that almost certainly means two representatives from each of the nine counties in the district choosing the congressional standard-bearer in the May race.

Sound familiar?  Dede Scozzafava was picked by ten county chairman in the upstate New York 23rd District.  Outraged by her liberal views on cultural issues and the federal stimulus packages and upset with the means in which she was chosen over more conservative rivals, Republican activists flocked in droves to the banner of Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman (who went on to force Scozzafava to suspend her campaign and lost a tight November election to Democrat Bill Owens).

Scozzafava All Over Again, Says Peg Luksik

One Western Pennsylvania pol who was very willing to speak on the record was Peg Luksik, veteran conservative activist who ran strong races for governor as a Republican in 1990 and as an independent in ’94.  This year, Luksik is helping the campaign of retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Bill Russell, who drew 42% of the vote as the GOP nominee against Murtha in ’08 and had been gearing up for a rematch with the Democratic incumbent in 2010.

“And you have all the makings of another New York-23,” Luksik told me, saying that the local Republican establishment “has never warmed up to Bill Russell because he’s his own man” and would very likely give the special election standard to another GOP hopeful.    

The Republicans most frequently mentioned for the “establishment” blessing are Washington County businessman Tim Burns and State Rep. Jeff Pyle.   While neither Burns nor Pyle is a Scozzafava liberal, neither has close ties with the Tea Party movement that is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with in Western Pennsylvania.  Russell has been working the half-dozen tea party groups throughout the 12th District — among them the Keystone Patriots, the 9/12 organization, the 4/19ers (from the date the Constitution was ratified).

Much like their counterparts who helped elect Scott Brown senator from Massachusetts and nominated conservatives over “establishment” GOPers in three Illinois House primaries February 2nd, the tea partiers in Western Pennsylvania pack a wallop.  One tea party in Westmoreland County drew 7,000 participants last year.  Despite the Democratic registration edge district-wide, conservative Republican  State Sen. Kim Ward and State Rep. Tim Krieger, both of Westmoreland County, recently captured districts that were previously in Democratic hands.  

Luksik made it clear that whether or not he was nominated for the race expected in May, Russell would run for nomination in the primary for the full term in November.

Local Democrats seem to have no problem with “insiders”choosing their standard-bearer.  Among those mentioned increasingly for nomination are State Sen. John Wozniak and former Lieutenant Governor and 1994 gubernatorial nominee Marc Singel, both of Johnstown.  

Parting Shot 

It is unfair to say that either of the “establishment” Republicans mentioned for the 12th District are potential Scozzafavas.  But it is also quite fair to say that candidates anointed by the party chieftains tend to be less conservative than those who  were nominated in primaries or in caucuses.  Even before the now-celebrated New York 23 contest, there was a special election in New York’s 20th District and in three state senate races.  The common denominators were that 1) a small conclave of Republicans picked candidates who were out of touch with the conservative grass-roots and 2) they all lost.