The House seat of Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, who died suddenly Monday at the age of 77, is at best a tossup in a swing district that recently has leaned toward the GOP, says political analyst Charlie Cook.
The special election in the 12th Congressional District should come no later than May under Pennsylvania law. A good date is probably the already scheduled May 18th primary.
The fight to fill that seat – Murtha himself won it in a special election in 1974 – represents a huge challenge for the Democratic Party, which is looking at an estimated 50 seats in the “tossup” category in the November elections, Cook wrote Monday in his political newsletter.
“As Massachusetts showed last month, Republicans are sure to turn out in droves if they sense any opportunity to pull off a coup,” Cook wrote. “But the statewide Democratic primaries, easily multimillion-dollar affairs, could help Democrats offset some of this enthusiasm gap.
“In 2002, Republican line-drawers packed every Democratic vote they could find in southwestern Pennsylvania into Murtha's district in a bid to force Murtha into a difficult primary and shore up the neighboring 4th and 18th CDs for the GOP,” Cook said. “But like so many other Appalachian districts dependent on federal largess, the 12th CD's political trend line is awful for Democrats.
“This district was the only in the country carried by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 to vote for GOP presidential nominee John McCain four years later. At the outset of the decade, this was a safe Democratic seat. Now, this seat is a point more Republican than the national average.”
Pennsylvania law dictates that the governor (Democrat Ed Rendell) must set a special election date within ten days of the proclamation of a vacancy, and must schedule the election no sooner than 60 days after that proclamation, meaning it probably will take place in conjunction with the state's May 18 primary.
At first glance, this date presents structural factors that may keep Democrats in the game despite the current political environment.
“Democrats have a deep bench of local elected officials here, some of whom may have waited decades for the chance to run for Congress. Of course, fielding an elected official presents unique challenges these days,” Cook wrote. “But the irascible state of the GOP could make that party's nomination process even more acrimonious. In the 9th CD special election in 2001, GOP infighting during the county convention phase created an unexpectedly close general election."
Pennsylvania has a closed primary “and registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans almost 2-to-1 in the 12th CD,” Cook continued. “Democrats are currently hosting more competitive primaries for Senate and Governor than Republicans, and local primaries usually generate strong turnout among Democrats in this part of the state.”
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