Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief over Mark Critz’s victory in the Pennsylvania race for the House seat formerly held by John Murtha, assuring that there will be no reprise of Scott Brown’s stunning capture of Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts.
Democrat Murtha had been in office from 1974 until his death in February, and Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in the district of shuttered steel mills and sputtering coal mines, although many of those Democrats are conservative on social issues.
A victory on Tuesday by the Republican candidate, millionaire businessman Tim Burns, would have sent an ominous message to Democratic candidates in moderate to conservative districts who are running for re-election in November.
But Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., told The Wall Street Journal shortly before the election that a Critz win would enable Democrats to claim they had stopped the Republicans’ momentum, which had been building for months.
President Barack Obama can take little credit for Critz’s win, however, since he had distanced himself from the race.
Critz, a former Murtha aide, had made his policy differences with the president clear, saying he supports gun rights and would have voted against Obama’s healthcare reform bill.
In any case, Obama’s support would have been of questionable value, considering that his approval rating in the district is just 38 percent, while his unfavorable ratings stands at 55 percent, according to a recent Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll.
Both parties targeted major resources on the race. The National Republican Congressional Committee blitzed the region with two weeks of TV ads linking Critz to the healthcare plan on the theme that “liberals like Mark Critz didn’t listen.”
Burns’ ads linked Critz to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had a warm friendship with Murtha but is viewed unfavorably by almost two-thirds of the district’s voters, according to a recent poll.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, launched its first ad on “tax day,” April 15, slamming Burns for supporting a plan to replace the income tax with a national sales tax.
Former President Bill Clinton also played a key role, lending his Democratic star power to Critz. During a visit to the district, Clinton called Critz a "how-to" guy with the goods to bring economic development and jobs to a blue-collar district hit hard by the recession.
Critz alleged that Burns had a record of outsourcing jobs and wants to privatize Social Security. Burns denied both charges.
Despite Obama’s absence, both candidates did bring in their parties’ big guns. Burns received several Facebook shoutouts from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Vice President Joe Biden stumped for Critz.
Democrats were hoping that a competitive primary between Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak would help boost turnout for Critz.
In the end, Critz got the turnout he needed to fend off the Republican challenge.
But the GOP is reportedly targeting about 30 Democrats in similar blue-collar districts this fall.
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