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The GOP's Post-Murtha Challenge

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on National Review Online.

With the death of longtime congressman John Murtha, there is an open House seat in Pennsylvania's twelfth congressional district. The state's regular primary is scheduled for May 18, and Gov. Ed Rendell is expected to set the twelfth district's special election for that date as well. Because of the abbreviated schedule, there will be no primary for the special election; each state party will simply nominate its choice.

If you're flashing back to the name "Dede Scozzafava," it's for good reason: This situation is similar to the one that created so much controversy in New York's 23rd congressional district last year. The GOP's county committees selected state assemblywoman Scozzafava as their nominee over eight other Republicans. One of the other candidates, Doug Hoffman, ran against Scozzafava as the Conservative-party candidate and gradually chipped away at her support as the election approached. Right-of-center support for Scozzafava dwindled as conservatives learned of her support for same-sex marriage, card check, federal funding for abortion, the stimulus, the public option, and police action against inconvenient Weekly Standard reporters. Several days before the election, she withdrew from the race, and the following day, she endorsed the Democrat, Bill Owens. Owens won, 49 percent to 46 percent.

Two Republicans were already preparing to run against Murtha this year: Tim Burns and Bill Russell. And because Murtha's death was so unexpected, it is possible that several Republicans who had not planned on running this cycle may choose to.

Burns is a newcomer to campaigning, but he's experienced as an entrepreneur: He started his own pharmacy-technology company in the basement of his house, and it grew to employ more than 400 workers before he sold it in 2003. Back in November, he attended one of the rallies against the Democrats' health-care reform. (He stopped by Murtha's office, hoping for a chance to chat with the man he hoped to unseat, but Murtha was out.)

In 2008, Russell ran against Murtha and got 42 percent of the vote (polling earlier in the race showed him closer), holding Murtha to 58 percent. That was the smallest percentage Murtha had received since 1974.

A lot of conservatives got enthused about Russell, a retired lieutenant colonel, as he tore into Murtha for his casual accusation that U.S. Marines at Haditha had "killed innocent civilians in cold blood." Russell said that Murtha's comments, and his refusal to retract them, were a big factor in his getting into the race. "As an Iraq War vet, I was enraged when I heard Mr. Murtha's endorsement of enemy propaganda." Russell also hit Murtha for his pork-barrel politics, noting that the district's primary export had become its young people.

To vote for one of these two Republicans, or any other, each precinct will get one representative, plus an additional representative for each 1,000 votes it cast for McCain in the 2008 presidential election, explained Michael Barley, the communications director of the Pennsylvania Republican party. Each county Republican party has its own process of selecting its representatives; some will be appointed by the county chair, others may be selected by panels.

The conferees will meet publicly, and the candidates will answer their questions. Judging by precedent, this meeting should occur in several weeks, probably in March.

The winner will proceed to face a Democrat in the special election; since the special election and the primary will take place on the same day, it is possible that two different Republicans could win - the special-election winner would serve out the remainder of Murtha's term, and the primary winner would run in the general election in November. Barley notes that this has happened in lower-ticket races in the past, and the Hoffman experience opens the door for any Republican who's passed over for the special-election ticket to denounce a "backroom deal."

Sources close to the Russell campaign are hearing that Burns will be the pick. "Our guy never stopped running after 2008, and their guy has never run before," says one Russell consultant. "It looks like they're going to nominate Tim Burns, and if they do, we'll just turn this into New York 23. Are they dumb enough to dismiss the guy who got more against Murtha last year than anyone else had before?" This consultant contends that Russell should be well-positioned for both campaigns; he ended the 2008 campaign with 60,000 donors. While some of those donors undoubtedly gave only out of an eagerness to see Murtha defeated, this consultant feels confident that Russell has developed a loyal base of supporters.

This cycle, Russell has raised an astonishing $2,892,109; Burns has raised a more modest $174,489. Nonetheless, Pennsylvania Republicans say that Burns can self-finance if needed, and that could be a factor in the abbreviated campaign season between the party's selection and the special election in May.

On paper, this is a seat Republicans should have a good shot at winning. Pennsylvania's twelfth is the only district in the country that voted for John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. It has a Cook Partisan Voting Index score of R+1, meaning that it leans very slightly Republican. The district's lines are as crooked as your least favorite Murtha earmark, as the borders were drawn to include heavily Democratic regions and exclude the more Republican-leaning suburbs of Pittsburgh. Almost 15 percent of the residents live in poverty.

Michael Barone's Almanac of American Politics describes the region: "The mountains and valleys within a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh comprise one of America's most beautiful - and economically troubled - regions. . . . But this area has not followed the national Democratic Party on all issues. Voters here tend to take conservative stands on cultural issues and foreign policy."

The GOP can win here - if it chooses its candidate wisely.

By Jim Geraghty:
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online