Special election for Murtha seat may be on May 18

“I don’t think this special election really is going to hold the kind of significance that the one in Massachusetts did,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D), a longtime friend of Murtha’s, noting that the winner will only fill out a 10-month term, as opposed to the two-year term Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is now serving.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), on a conference call with reporters Monday, suggested that he would pick May 18, the day of the state’s primary election, as the date for the special election.

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Rendell said he would consult with congressional leaders to decide if that worked best. Whatever his decision, the governor will have to announce the special-election date within the next 10 days, and it must be held at least 60 days thereafter, according to a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.

State Democrats argue the best way to honor Murtha’s legacy is to keep the seat in the party’s hands. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report switched the race to a toss-up after Murtha died.

“The legacy of Jack Murtha will be, in some respects, on the line, and I think there’ll be a full-bore effort to honor his memory,” said T.J. Rooney, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “That’ll be a great rallying cry.

“We’re not going to nominate Martha Coakley,” Rooney said, noting the party is looking for “a strong, moderate, mainstream Democrat” to pick up the mantle.

Murtha died Monday in Arlington, Va., from surgical complications. He was 77 years old and had represented Pennsylvania’s 12th district for 36 years.

Some observers have pointed to the district’s support for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election as a sign it could flip to a GOPer this cycle. Republicans are already targeting several Democratic House members in the state, and strategists are beginning to eye Murtha’s district.

To choose a Democratic nominee, the half-dozen counties in Murtha’s district will each recommend a candidate to the state’s executive committee, which will then vote on the nominee.

“It’s not inconceivable the district will split on who that candidate should be,” Rooney said.

Still, he insisted it was a decision best made at the district level. “We want guidance from people who know that district the best,” he said. “We don’t want whoever our candidate is to be the ‘anointed one of the party bosses.’ ”

The Republican candidate for the special election will be chosen at a meeting of some 200 Republican conferees from around the 12th district.

On the Democratic side, names being mentioned including former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel (D), state Sen. John Wozniak and John Hugya, Murtha’s former chief of staff.

More candidates will likely emerge after the congressman’s funeral, said Helen Whiteford, the chairwoman of the Cambria County Democratic Party.

“They’ll be coming out of the woodwork.”

Doyle said it’s unlikely any Democrat will announce his or her candidacy before Murtha is properly mourned.

“Nobody’s going to be talking about running for the seat until Mr. Murtha and his family are shown the respect they deserve and we have him properly buried,” he said.

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Doyle noted that any potential nominee could have difficulty consolidating support because of the “salamander-like” shape of the district. “It’s going to be a pretty wide-open kind of process just because of the way the district is configured,” he said.

While the district still favors Democrats, Doyle said fundraising could be a challenge.

“The new person’s not going to have some of the resources Jack had,” he noted. “In that respect it’s a leveling of the playing field.”

Because much of the district is covered by the Pittsburgh media market, some observers have suggested it could cost upward of $1.5 million to wage a special-election campaign.

Two Republicans are already in the race: businessman Tim Burns, who’s in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program, and William Russell, who ran against Murtha in 2008. They could soon have company.

“With the changing dynamics, people become more interested,” said a Washington-based Republican strategist. “I would expect other people to get into this race.”