Murtha seat looks like outpost resisting impending GOP onslaught

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — In the hard-fought rematch for the late Rep. John Murtha’s (D) House seat, the candidates are the same, but the dynamics have changed considerably.

This working-class western Pennsylvania district was once considered a must-win for Republicans looking to win back the House. Now, however, the Democratic seat may become the rare centrist district that resists an even broader GOP sweep, the exception rather than the bellwether.

Rep. Mark Critz (D) is defending the seat he won by a surprising eight points in a May special election following the death of Murtha, his former boss. He again faces Tim Burns, a self-made millionaire who has run a largely boilerplate GOP campaign, hammering the Democratic agenda in Washington and tying Critz to unpopular Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

An underdog five months ago, Critz, 48, now has an edge, according to political analysts. The reason, in his view, is simple.

“I’ve gone to Congress and done exactly what I said I was going to do,” he said during an interview in his bustling Johnstown campaign office.

While Burns has run ads targeting Critz’s 94 percent voting record with Pelosi, the reality is a bit different. On the relatively few consequential votes the House has taken since May, Critz voted mostly against the Democratic leadership. He opposed the final version of the Wall Street regulatory overhaul, the Disclose Act tightening campaign finance rules and a repeal of the "Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy on gays in the military.

Critz has also run against the healthcare law (though he doesn’t favor full repeal) and the cap-and-trade energy bill, and he said in a debate here Friday that he would have opposed the stimulus package that passed in February 2009. The Democrat has dodged questions about whether he would support Pelosi for Speaker, most recently in an interview Friday and then in the debate that night.

“I’m not concerned about leadership at this point. I’m concerned about winning my race,” Critz told The Hill.

The GOP’s targeting of this district stems from its demographics and the fact that it was the only one in the nation to flip from supporting Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. The 12th district is one of the oldest in the nation, and its white, working-class, socially conservative voters are the kind who never warmed to Obama and have turned decisively against him in the last year.

“If you think this administration is taking this country in the right direction, then Mark Critz is your guy, because he votes with the administration 94 percent of the time,” Burns said during his closing statement at Friday’s debate. “If you want to make sure that this administration does not take away more of our freedoms and our liberties, then I ask for your vote.”

Both parties invested heavily in the special election, hoping to win not just a single House seat but a shot of momentum heading into the fall campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee each poured more than $1 million into the race. Now that the campaign is just one in 435, the national parties are still spending, but not as much.

While Burns has released polling showing himself ahead, Democrats note that it comes from the same firm, Public Opinion Strategies, that in May had the Republican leading a race he went on to lose by eight points. Democratic polls and an independent survey have given Critz a lead in the single digits.

Burns, 42, built a pharmaceutical technology company from the basement of his house. It grew to more than 400 employees before he sold it in 2003.

“I’m the only candidate in this race that has ever created a job — and not only a job, but over 400 jobs,” he said.

Burns has pushed for smaller government and lower taxes, signing a pledge to oppose any tax increases. In a steel-producing district that has been hit hard by the decline in manufacturing, Democrats have hit him for supporting tax policies that encourage outsourcing. Burns, in turn, has argued that the nation’s high corporate tax rates, along with the new healthcare law, are policies that “ship jobs overseas.”

Yet this race is still shaped, in part, by Murtha’s complicated legacy. A Vietnam veteran first elected in 1974, Murtha brought millions in defense contracts — and with them, jobs — to the district over the years, and the local airport and a medical center are named after him. When Burns ran an ad before the special election that suggested Critz, Murtha’s former district director, was under federal investigation, Critz ran a response accusing Burns of “attacking John Murtha’s memory.”

During the debate, Critz mentioned Murtha repeatedly and touted his experience as his aide, while Burns never uttered the late congressman’s name and warned against a reliance on federal support.

By the end of his life, many voters had soured on Murtha. Criticized as one of the House’s biggest pork-barrel spenders, he alienated some conservatives in the district by turning sharply against the Iraq war and aligning himself more closely with the Democratic Party’s more liberal leadership. Several Burns supporters said they had regularly backed Murtha until the last few years, but that when he ran for House majority leader in 2006 with Pelosi’s backing, it showed, as one voter put it, that “he lost touch with the district.”

Nearly nine months after Murtha’s death, Critz remains linked to his former boss, for better or worse. “I don’t want to say Mark was his errand boy, but that’s what he did,” said Charlie Grigg, 75, who drove 67 miles to attend Friday’s debate and said he was leaning toward Burns.

Burns is hoping that a greater GOP turnout will make the difference, but he will also have to persuade voters who supported Critz the last time around. He found few undecided voters at Friday’s debate, where the crowd was divided between supporters of the candidates. Two voters who hadn’t finalized their pick were Meade and Mari Meyers, who said they backed Critz in May but wanted to hear both contenders one last time. After the hourlong event, they had settled on Critz, with Mari Meyers saying Burns left her “uneasy.” “He’ll make a good, honest attempt to serve,” Meade Meyers said of Critz.