Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tim Burns and the PA-12 "Perfect Storm"

There's no sugar-coating it--Tim Burns' grab at John Murtha's PA-12 House seat flamed out, and flamed out rather badly. Burns lost to Mark Critz in a special election held to fill out the remainder of Murtha's term, but won his party's primary election, which means he gets to face Critz--who also won his primary race--again in the general election on November 2.

But in the special election, Burns faced the perfect storm and hopes that he could upset Critz were misplaced. Here are the chips that were stacked against Burns last night:

  • The "big ticket" race in yesterday's primary and special election was the face-off between Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democrats' primary election for Senator. The GOP Senate primary "featured" Pat Toomey against Peg Luksik (who?). The Specter-Sestak clash attracted lots of Democrats to the polls.
  • PA-12 is a district where Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 edge in party registration over Republicans. When the marquis race in the state is a Democrat primary fight, it's no surprise which candidate was more likely to get his voters to the polls yesterday.
  • Critz ran a campaign that a GOP stalwart would be proud of. He ran as a pro-life, pro-gun fiscal conservative.  He claimed to support small business tax breaks, "targeted" tax cuts for the middle class and said he would have voted against Obamacare and opposed cap-and-trade.  It was a typical, "blue dog Democrat" campaign that wins lots of votes in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, rust belt states with economically populist but socially conservative electorates.
  •  Critz was a long-time aid for John Murtha, and had been a fixture in PA-12 since 1994.  Many people outside of the district wouldn't have known him well at all, but the voters in Johnstown, Uniontown and Latrobe.  Had Murtha retired instead of dying in office, he'd almost certainly have strongly endorsed Critz' candidacy.

But even against such a tide of difficulty, Tim Burns still managed to garner 45% of the vote, losing by 8 points.  Why is that significant? In the 2008 general election, Critz' old boss won by a 16-point margin of 58-42.  In 2006, it was 61-39.  Murtha was unopposed in 2004, but in 2002 we won 73-27.  In 2000, he won 71-29.  And so forth, and so on.  In fact, the only time Murtha was ever seriously challenged in a PA-12 election was a February 1974 special election when he won with 50% of the vote.

Burns' loss yesterday will be spun as a serious blow to GOP hopes of re-taking the House of Representatives in November.  Believing that is a mistake.  Burns now has the opportunity to evaluate strategy and tactics and address shortcomings over the next six months.  He pulled pretty high numbers in pre-election polls and had the best showing a Republican has had in that district in a generation.

Extra Point: Obligatory sports analogy--the rematch tends to favor the loser of the first battle because while the winner resists changing the "winning formula," the loser gets to try something new.

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