The Outlook in the Race for Murtha's Seat

Harrisburg, Pa.—By far the most talked-of topic at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference here was the special election for the seat of the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha, which will be held May 18th.  Most of the 500-plus PLC participants I spoke to were optimistic that businessman and Republican nominee Tim Burns could put the 12th District (Western Pennsylvania) in GOP hands for the first time in 36 years..  (Last week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced he was jetting to the 12th District to campaign for Burns.)

The national implications of the results May 18th are obvious.  A Burns win would continue the GOP momentum that began with Scott Brown’s dramatic capture of the Senate seat in Massachusetts in January. 

At the same time, however, a Critz win would give the Obama White House a chance to justify the President’s recent words that he found the tea party movement “amusing” (Republican Burns got involved in politics by speaking to tea parties in Western Pennsylvania).

A just-completed Public Opinion Strategies Poll showed Burns running ahead of Democrat Mark Critz among likely voters by a slim margin of 45% to 41%. 

Complicating the race is that it will be held the same day as primaries in the Keystone State.  So on the same day he is vying for the remainder of Murtha’s term, Burns will also be running for nomination to a full term against retired Army Lt. Colonel Bill Russell.  As the last Republican opponent to Murtha, Russell drew 42% of the vote against the veteran congressman in ’08.  In both that campaign and the buildup to what he expected would be a rematch, Russell raised about $2.9 million—much of it from donars outside Pennsylvania (Most of that $2.9 million went to the vendor running the direct mail effort for Russell).

Russell was publicly upset at county party leaders passing him over for nomination in the special election and turning to Burns.  Russell recently announced he will write his known name in in the special election ballot rather than vote for Burns.  This has sparked rumors of a Russell-backed write-in movement which could tip the race from Burns to Critz next month.

“And there is absolutely no truth to that rumor—none whatsoever,” Russell campaign quarterback Peg Luksik told me last week, “Bill did say he is voting for himself in the special but we are in no way organizing a write in movement.  Our focus is on winning the primary for the full term, period.” 

All of this, of course, is the “inside baseball” of Western Pennsylvania.  But whatever happens on May 18th could easily have a major impact on national politics and be a defining moment in the midterm elections of 2010 – and hurt conservatives nationwide in 2010.