Can Tim Burns Turn Murtha's District Republican?

About two months after Scott Brown’s  smashing victory in the race to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, the stage is now set for a May 12 special election likely to be considered a referendum on the Obama Administration and one in which a Republican could succeed a high-profile Democrat.  

Last week, bowing to the wishes of the late congressman’s widow Joyce, Democratic leaders in the Western Pennsylvania district nominated Murtha’s longtime top aide Mark Critz to run for the vacant seat.  In so doing, the Democrats rejected two other candidates, including former State Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Barbara Hafer.

At their own conclave of party leaders, Republicans rejected ’08 nominee and retired U.S. Army officer Bill Russell (who drew 42% of the vote against Murtha two years ago) in favor of area businessman and political newcomer Tim Burns.  Although local GOPers hailed Russell for his military background and strong showing against the late congressman, there was nonetheless a feeling, Keystone State GOP sources told me, that Burns would be a better candidate and present a sharper contrast to Democrat Critz.

Russell had previously signaled that he would run for nomination to the full term for Congress in the Republican primary in May, which will be held on the same day as the special election to fill out Murtha’s term; but historically, when races like this are held at the same time, voters tend to give their party’s nominee in a special House election another “crack” at the seat in the general election.

When I spoke to Burns less than 24 hours after his nomination, he wasted little time in spelling out the differences between himself and the 48-year-old Critz.

“He’s a bureaucrat and I’m a businessman,” Burns told me, “He’s never created a job in his life and I’ve created 400 jobs in the private sector.  He symbolizes what’s broken in Washington and, while I wouldn’t describe serving in Congress as my ‘dream job,’ I got into this race because I wanted to fix things.”

Turning to specific issues, the 41-year-old businessman-candidate told me that he opposed the “Obamacare” package now working its way through Congress (and which Critz’s s former boss Murtha voted for last year) and the Administration-backed cap-and-trade climate control legislation which could devastate the American manufacturing industry.  He added that he has challenged Critz to tell where he stands on both issues.

Burns also emphasized his credentials as an outsider who had never been involved in politics before.  Recalling how he spoke at the first local “tea party” protest in his home area of Washington County last year, Burns said “I spoke from my heart about how the role of government was growing [under Barack Obama] and that its policies could hurt small businessmen such as me.”

Describing himself as “upset” with politics as usual, Burns said “I had not considered running until after the tea parties, but I decided that I owed it to my two children, who are 14 and 12, to do something.  We’re in a fight for the very life of our country.”  Burns also attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington last month.

Although Murtha was re-elected with ease for most of his 36 years in Congress, things are changing in Western Pennsylvania.  Republicans recently won state senate and state House seats here that were previously in Democratic hands.  As pundits nationwide are beginning to note, the site of the next major special election is the lone district in the nation that went for John Kerry in ’04 and John McCain in ’08.

It’s unclear whether Burns vs. Critz will be a referendum on the Obama Administration.  The health care debate will probably be over by the time Western Pennsylvania voters go to the polls in May.  However, there are enough issues on the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda — from cap and trade to immigration reform to card check — that are sure to be debated fully by the candidates and draw political reporters to Pennsylvania-12 by May.

When I asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Friday whether the President would campaign for Critz as he did for the Democratic nominees in Massachusetts in January and in New York’s 23rd District in November, he would only say: “I don’t have any scheduling information on that, and I can certainly check with Political Affairs.”

The Plot Thickens:  Update on the Sestak Affair

When I asked Robert Gibbs on Friday about whether the President would campaign in Pennsylvania-12, I had another question on Pennsylvania politics — and one that the President’s top spokesman is now familiar with.

“Do you have an answer yet on Mr. Sestak’s charge?,” I asked, with no need at all to explain to the President’s top spokesman and my colleagues in the White House Press Corps that I was referring to the charge by Rep. Joseph Sestak (D-Pa.) that he was offered a high-ranking Administration position to abandon his challenge to fellow Pennsylvania Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter in the May primary.

“I don’t have any more information on that,” Gibbs told me, a reply in no way unlike that he has given the last three times he has been questioned on the Sestak affair over the past three weeks.

Gibbs’ “don’t knows” and “don’t have anything” may be enough to assuage reporters, but not enough to satisfy Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told Fox News shortly after my exchange with Gibbs that it would be a “crime” if the Administration offered Sestak a job to get out of the Senate race.

“That would be a crime to offer anybody a federal job," said Issa, “"You can’t promise ambassadorships to contributors and even worse, you cannot manipulate the races by saying we’ll give you something else if you drop out. You can’t do it."

The Californian has written White House Assistant Counsel Robert Bauer demanding information on what they know about Sestak’s claim (which the Pennsylvania lawmaker again said he stood by last week).

Dismissing Gibbs’ refusal to confirm or deny anything, Issa said that “either Sestak is lying or the administration has done something wrong and is covering it up and they should be the first to want to clear that up even if they’re not wanting to support transparency as they said they would when they came to office."

Two things were obvious as of Friday: the Sestak affair is not going anywhere and Gibbs is sure to have many more opportunities for an explanation on this one.