A top-dollar fight in the high-stakes battle for control of Congress culminates Tuesday in southwestern Pennsylvania, where the special election to replace the late Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., will offer valuable clues about which party has the momentum heading into midterms this fall.
The race in this community of shuttered steel mills and sputtering coal mines pits Republican Tim Burns, 42, a millionaire businessman with ties to Tea Party activists, against Democrat Mark Critz, 48, who served for years as Murtha’s district director.
National parties are targeting major resources on this race. The National Republican Congressional Committee blitzed the region with two weeks of TV ads linking Critz to the Obama-Pelosi healthcare plan on the theme that “liberals like Mark Critz didn’t listen.” 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.
The district could hardly be more competitive: It’s the only one in the country that backed Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for president in 2004, albeit narrowly, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., four years later. While Democrats outnumber Republicans, many Democrats are conservative on social issues. Republicans across the country are targeting roughly 30 Democrats in similar blue-collar districts this fall.
In a strategy that’s sure to be part of the GOP’s playbook this fall, Burns is running TV ads linking Critz to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who despite her famously warm friendship with Murtha, is viewed unfavorably by nearly two-thirds of the district’s voters, according to a recent poll.
“This election is very simple,” Burns said to camera in one recent ad. “If you think we need more bailouts, more government, higher taxes and Nancy Pelosi's values are your values, well then Mark Critz is your candidate.”
In the first competitive special election since the healthcare bill passed in March, Burns says he would repeal so-called “Obamacare,” which he said “means a half a trillion dollars of additional taxes, over $500 billion in radical Medicare cuts and taxpayer funded abortions.”
Critz, who has said he would have voted against the healthcare bill, but stops short of backing repeal, counters that Burns has a record of outsourcing jobs and says Burns wants to privatize Social Security. Burns denies both charges.
In one surprising move, Critz said during a recent debate that he would vote to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gays in the military. If Critz prevails next Tuesday, it could encourage other Democrats in other swing districts to follow his lead.
Both candidates are bringing in their parties’ big guns: Burns has received several Facebook shoutouts from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Vice President Joe Biden has stumped for Critz, while former President Bill Clinton will campaign there Sunday.
Recent polls show that while the race remains close, Critz has opened up a small lead over Burns. Democrats hope that a competitive primary between Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D), which also takes place Tuesday, will help boost turnout for Critz.
In the end, Critz’s biggest strength may be his close ties to the legendary Murtha, who represented the district from 1974 until his death in February. In an effort to minimize Murtha’s impact, however, Burns is organizing an eleventh-hour rally with Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who succeeded the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) in January after reminding voters that the Senate seat belonged to the “people,” not the Kennedys.
“This race is no longer about John Murtha,” Burns told the Wall Street Journal recently. “It's literally a referendum about the Obama-Pelosi agenda.”
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