Parties Test Election Themes in Penn. House Race

Tim Burns, center, a Republican candidate for the congressional seat vacated by the death of Congressman John Murtha, smiles as he greets supporters at a campaign rally with fellow Republican Tom Corbett who is seeking his party's nomination for governor of Pennsylvania at the Richland Fire Hall in Johnstown, Pa., May 17, 2010.
AP Photo
A special election in Pennsylvania for a U.S. House of Representatives seat is the battleground of choice Tuesday for the two political parties, previewing themes for a midyear campaign shadowed by recession and voter discontent.

Competing economic prescriptions, the appeal of President Obama's health care legislation, the Republicans' ability to woo crossover support from independents and Democrats all are at issue, according to officials in both parties, in a race that also features a struggle for the political high ground as Washington outsider.

The House race features Republican Tim Burns against Democrat Mark Critz to fill out the final few months in the term of the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha. But the two national parties made it something more than that when they decided several weeks ago to invest heavily, roughly $1 million apiece beyond what their candidates themselves are spending.

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"This is the kind of district that the Republicans have to win if their hype is to even begin to meet the reality on the ground," said Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He was poking at GOP boasts that the party will win the 40 seats this fall that it needs to take power in the House.

"This is the fall. This is where it happens," said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The elections are in November.

The Pennsylvania district is home to more registered Democrats than Republicans. There is a solid working class vote, the result of the area's location in the nation's coal belt. Additionally, opposition to gun control and abortion is strong within both parties. The district supported Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election after siding with Democrats in the previous two races for the White House.

Private polling shows Obama's approval rating in the congressional district in the range of 35 to 40 percent, lower than it is nationally. And while the Republican Party-paid television ads and mass mailings attack the president's agenda, they have focused even more criticism on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The Republican Congressional Campaign's sum-up television ad, airing in the final days of the race, touches on points the party says it intends to stress in the coming campaign. It says the health care overhaul that passed was disastrous and will cut $500 billion from Medicare, the government's main medical program for the elderly and infirm. The Republicans also contend a House-passed energy bill is a "cap and trade scheme" that will cost jobs, that Democratic liberals voted for runaway spending, and that the "Obama-Pelosi agenda only makes things worse."

As the TV image of Obama and Pelosi together gives way to one of the speaker standing alone, the announcer says, "Pennsylvania can send Nancy Pelosi a message. Or send her Mark Critz."

Democrats have hit back hard on pocketbook issues, including jobs, as they seek to avoid a backlash from voters angry over a steady loss of jobs that has only lately showed signs of abating.

"Southwestern Pennsylvania is hurting, but millionaire Tim Burns would make things worse," says one ad aired by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Referring to a proposed value-added tax, it goes on, "Burns supports putting a 23 percent national sales tax on just about everything we buy," groceries, gas and medicine included. "We can't afford to pay 23 percent more. We can't afford Tim Burns."

Public polling nationwide shows Republicans are more eager to cast ballots this fall than Democrats, and surveys also indicate the minority party is attracting the independent voters whose support was essential in 2006 and 2008, when the Republicans lost control of Congress and then the White House.

An intensely competitive Senate primary in Pennsylvania is likely to swell turnout by Democrats, however, and Republican strategists say Burns must appeal to them and to independents if he is to win.

The same energy that Republicans hope will power them to victory in the fall has transformed the party's senatorial primary in Kentucky into an unpredictable contest.

"I'm not running to be the candidate of the tea party," Secretary of State Trey Grayson said Monday as he closed out his race with political newcomer Rand Paul. "I'm running to be the candidate of this Republican Party of Kentucky."

Paul, the son of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, said he happily would accept support from tea party activists as well as traditional Republicans.

The working-class tea party movement complains of government spending and what its members consider dangerous governmental influence throughout American life. The movement's name is taken from the 1773 Boston Tea Party, a protest in which activists in the then-British colonies in America boarded ships and threw their cargo of English tea into Boston Harbor in a symbolic protest against taxes.

The race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning in Kentucky has divided the Republicans for weeks. The party's Senate leader, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, helped push Bunning to the sidelines and recruited Grayson. Last week, as polls showed Paul opening a substantial lead, McConnell stepped in with an endorsement of his recruit that quickly became a statewide television commercial.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter quit the Republicans and joined the Democrats a year ago and drew the support of Obama, organized labor and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell as he set out to win a sixth term, his first as a Democrat.

But Rep. Joe Sestak grabbed late momentum with a television commercial that showed his rival saying he had switched parties so he could win re-election. Late polls showed a highly competitive race.

In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln's path to a third term ran into a primary challenge from Lt. Gov, Bill Halter, who has the support of the Service Employees International Union, which is unhappy with the incumbent's positions on health care, union organizing and more.

A pro-business group, Americans for Job Security, countered with more than $1 million for an ad that purported to "thank" Halter for helping ship jobs overseas.

Late polls showed Lincoln ahead in a multicandidate race, but far from certain of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

A fourth state, Oregon, picks its nominees for the fall on Tuesday, but Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has not faced serious competition for his party's nomination to a new term.

Two longtime lawmakers have suffered defeat in recent days: Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, who failed to gain enough support at a state convention to qualify for a primary, and Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, who lost his bid for renomination two weeks ago.