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Politics

House Win Gives Dems Timely Boost

Victory slows GOP juggernaut, gives Democrats hope for November.

Democrat Mark Critz beat Republican Tim Burns in a special House election last night, and for Democrats, it couldn’t have come at a better time. In a year filled with ominous clouds for the party in power, the win was a rare ray of sunshine. It doesn’t mean Republicans won’t pick up a lot of seats in November -- they certainly will -- but the win by a surprisingly large eight percentage points puts a big question mark on GOP boasts of taking control of the House, which requires a net gain of 40 seats.

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Of all the attention-grabbing contests on Tuesday, the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th District was the only one that wasn’t a primary. Instead of an intraparty struggle over ideology or loyalty, this was a knockdown fight between a strong Democratic candidate and a strong Republican candidate in exactly the kind of House district that is most up for grabs in November.

The election fills the seat held for 36 years by Democrat John Murtha, who died in February, shortly after becoming the longest serving congressman in the state. He rode to victory 18 times, often with 60% or more of the vote, a champion of pork who revitalized the district’s economy by bringing home millions in government contracts and thousands of jobs. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman both established outposts in the district as Murtha brought more and more defense work home to his constituents.

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Set in Johnstown and surrounding areas in the southwestern part of the state, the district might seem overwhelmingly Democratic. Murtha’s hold was strong, and Democrats have a 2-1 advantage in registration, a fact Republicans are pointing to in the wake of their loss. But it is a conservative, blue collar district, dominated by what were once known as Reagan Democrats. It is 80% white, and less than 20% of those whites hold college degrees. It is the only district in the nation to have voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004 and then for Republican John McCain in 2008. Its conservative, lunch-bucket makeup is similar to about one-quarter of the seats now held by Democrats, the very seats most targeted by the GOP as likely takeovers.

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Both candidates ran strong campaigns. Critz was Murtha’s longtime aide and promised he could get things done. Burns, a successful businessman, ran as an outsider, promising to cut the deficit, repeal the health care law and fight for smaller government. Critz took similarly conservative views, adopting an ideology closer to that of Burns than of his mentor. But Critz never tried to completely separate himself from Murtha and couldn’t have even if he wanted to. That made him the establishment candidate in an antiestablishment year. The fact that he was still able to win is sure to give solace to worried incumbents.

In some ways, the election became a referendum on the economy, with Burns blaming President Obama’s policies and Critz blaming President George W. Bush. Both candidates had national backing, and each campaign spent heavily. Organized labor worked hard for Critz, and his victory will establish a kind of template for similar races in November. Democrats will now conclude that they can hold on if they make an all-out effort to get out the vote, no matter that Republicans seem to have a more energized base to call on.

But it’s a mistake to draw too many conclusions from this campaign, which will resume almost immediately. Critz and Burns will meet for a rematch in November.

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