Pennsylvania’s special election for John Murtha’s seat in the 12th district is an important marker in the race for control of the House this November for three reasons:
One – the district typifies the culturally conservative area that House Democrats will have to defend in November.
Two – the race is likely to be decided on national issues.
Three – A loss in Pennsylvania would prime the pump for a series of “Are Democrats headed for disaster?” stories.
Keep in mind, Democrats hold a 1.3 million voter registration edge over Republicans in the state, which is why Democrat Governor Edward Gene Rendell moved the special election to the same day as the statewide primary where Democrats have very competitive races for Senate and governor and there are few (if any) competitive statewide primaries in the GOP.
Tim Burns, the Republican, and Mark Critz, the Democrat, are running in a Pennsylvania special election later this month. AP photos by Keith Srakocic
Within four days later this month, voters in Hawaii and southwestern Pennsylvania — two locales thousands of geographic miles apart and even further separated culturally — will head to the polls to pick replacement Congressmen.
While the special elections in Pennsylvania’s 12th district and Hawaii’s 1st district — set for May 18 and May 22, respectively — are both important markers in the race for control of the House this fall, the Keystone State race to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D) matters more when it comes to analyzing the overall political environment.
Why? For three major reasons.
First, the Pennsylvania district is just the sort of culturally conservative area that House Democrats will have to defend in November in race across the country.
It was the only district that went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 election then flipped to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) four years later.
And, Republicans have featured both President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) in their ads in the 12th, a precursor to their November strategy in swing districts — particularly if Burns wins.
Second, the issues on which the race is likely to be decided are entirely national in scope.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has attacked former congressional staffer Mark Critz (D) on Democrats’ energy policy and the health care legislation in ads. In a commercial launched this morning, businessman Tim Burns (R) takes Critz to task for opposing the repeal of the “radical” health care bill that “drastically cuts seniors’ Medicare…raises taxes…and even uses taxpayer money to pay for abortions”.
Third, Pennsylvania goes before Hawaii and primacy matters in these sorts of things. A loss by Democrats in Pennsylvania would prime the pump for a series of “Are Democrats headed for disaster?” stories if Djou goes on to win for days later. If Democrats can win in Pennsylvania though, they are far more able to withstand a loss in Hawaii — writing it off to local rather than national politics.
Compare that trio of Pennsylvania factors to the operating dynamic in Hawaii and an obvious contrast emerges.
While Hawaii is a far more Democratic district — President Obama won with 70 percent there in 2008 — a ballot quirk that puts former Rep. Ed Case (D), state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa (D) and Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou on the same May 22 ballot makes drawing national conclusions from the race more difficult.
The two Democratic candidates are drawing over 50 percent of the vote combined to the mid 30s for Djou. National Democrats have acknowledged privately that if Hanabusa and Case remain in the race they are likely to lose on May 22 but believe that a one-on-one fight in the fall will go their way. (That’s another contrast worth noting between the two races. A Djou win would put him at the top of Democratic target lists while a Burns victory might mean Republicans keep the seat for the foreseeable future.)
Like any race, however, there are mitigating factors in each contest that make Pennsylvania something short of entirely national and Hawaii something short of entirely local.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats have a 60,000 voter registration edge over Republicans and the special will take place on the same day as the statewide primary where Democrats have very competitive races for Senate and governor while there are few (if any) competitive statewide GOP primaries.
In Hawaii, the split between liberals and labor who are for Hanabusa and the national party establishment who are, still somewhat quietly, for Case carries echoes of the split that tore apart the GOP in the New York 23rd district special election last year. (Most Democratic strategists dismiss the idea of a split within the party nationally, noting that the divide in Hawaii is far more about the state politics — both U.S. Senators are for Hanabusa — than about the state of the party.)
And, while the two Democrats vs one Republican dynamic is clearly the dominant one in Hawaii, there is considerable intensity in the GOP base (and even among independents) for Djou — empirical evidence of an intensity gap that has played out in a series of national polls over the last few months. As one Republican strategist noted: “A Charles Djou victory would be a sign of increased GOP intensity. Two years ago, Republicans would have lost this seat.”
Putting those caveats aside, it’s clear that Pennsylvania’s special election is the more true national referendum of the two May races. It’s why spending by the two national parties is already over $1.1 million and nearly certain to grow considerably in the final 13 days of the race.
And, it’s why every political eyeball in the country will be focused on southwestern Pennsylvania on May 18.