PA-12 Special Election Update

There’s only one U.S. House district that went from supporting John Kerry for President in ’04 to John McCain in ’08.  It’s Pennsylvania’s 12th District—where longtime Democratic Rep. John Murtha’s death last month has resulted in a special election to be held on the first Tuesday in May (the same day as both major parties hold their primaries in the Keystone State).

The district Murtha had little trouble securing re-election in since his first win in 1974 is now listed by prognosticators as “competitive.”  Without question, the race to succeed Murtha will attract national attention and possibly as much punditry as the victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts if a Republican is triumphant in the Western Pennsylvania district.

Last week, Democrats in the 12th got two “shockers” when both the widow of the late congressman and a popular state senator said they weren’t running.  Even conservative Pennsylvanians I spoke to at CPAC conceded that Murtha’s widow Joyce could have easily held onto her late husband’s House seat and that State Sen. John Wozniak was one of the Democratic Party’s strongest political horses. 

Now both are out and Democrats — who will soon select their nominee through a committee of local party leaders—are down to their “B-Team.”  Former Lieutenant Gov. Marc Singel (who last ran for office when he was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994) and former State Auditor General Barbara Hafer (who was the Republican nominee for governor in 1990, switched parties, and unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in ’02) are the two leading contenders.

Republicans will also choose their nominee by committee and the two candidates are ’08 nominee and retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Bill Russell and businessman Tim Burns.  A just-completed Zogby Poll shows Russell, who drew 42% of the vote against Murtha two years ago, beating Burns among likely GOP voters by a margin of 37% to 7% district-wide. 

But there is no primary and the nominee for the special will be chosen by about 30 local party leaders.  Privately, a number of GOPers felt Russell may have gone a bit far in his attacks on Murtha — who draws animosity from conservatives for his anti-Iraq stance but remain much-liked in the district for the government largess he brought home.  At the time of Murtha’s death, Russell had raised more than $2.5 million in fund-raising nationwide (although much of this was used for direct mail prospecting and only a fraction of that amount went into his campaign coffers).

While some Russellites have sought to liken the nomination situation to that of New York-23 last year, the analogy falls short.  Along with agreeing with Russell on just about every issue — from life to opposition to health care and the stimulus packages — Burns has been well-received when addressing tea party events in Western Pennsylvania.