Politics & Policy

Recapping Pennsylvania’s 12th

The GOP's Tim Burns dramatically underperformed in turning out his base.

On Tuesday morning, Republicans who were closely watching the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District — once represented by John Murtha — did not offer ironclad, take-it-to-the-bank guarantees that their man Tim Burns was going to win. But they liked his chances, and expected him to at least run close to Democrat Mark Critz.

The final tally wasn’t close: Critz won 53.4 percent to Burns’s 44.3 percent, with all precincts but one reporting. Critz won a bit more than 71,000 votes, Burns a bit more than 59,000.

So what happened? Among the arguments emerging late Tuesday night:

#ad#Critz ran as a conservative: Some conservatives bitterly chuckled that Democrats were celebrating the victory of a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat who opposed health care and cap-and-trade. (Public Policy Polling found only 30 percent of the district’s voters support Obamacare, and 58 percent oppose.) This comes on the heels of an anti-Obamacare, anti-Pelosi, pro-life Democrat, Mike Oliverio, knocking off incumbent Alan Mollohan in West Virginia. They contend that few Democrats will be able to run on as conservative a platform as Critz and Oliverio did.

That argument is true enough, but a lot of Democrats who are considered vulnerable will be attempting to run as conservatives this fall. In fact, what made Pennsylvania’s special House election a useful indicator was that the two candidates offered precisely the arguments we should see in many swing districts this fall: the Republican arguing that the Democrat was a puppet for President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, and the Democrat insisting that no, he had nothing to do with those Washington liberals, that he was just a homespun country boy who voted in his district’s best interest. Tuesday, a district full of conservative Democrats concluded that Critz made the more persuasive argument.

Critz effectively distanced himself from Obama on the economy: It’s not like Critz could tout the fantastic job-creation record of the administration; besides the 9.9 percent national average, the unemployment rate is 11.6 percent in Fayette County, and well above 10 percent in other 12th District counties.

So Critz had to offer a jobs plan. Conservatives might justifiably snort that the first item on Critz’s 358-word, six-paragraph “Jobs Plan” is a tax hike; Critz clings — bitterly, as a visitor to Pennsylvania might say — to the notion that the entire reason that manufacturing and heavy-industry jobs have moved overseas is a provision in the tax code, and eliminating “tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas” will bring jobs back. But in an era of Wall Street bailouts, it appears voters will warmly receive any argument casting corporate America as the villain.


The second item on Critz’s jobs agenda is opposition to free trade, specifically a pledge “to reform trade deals like NAFTA that send jobs overseas.” (Of course, two days before Election Day, Critz welcomed Bill Clinton to come campaign for him.) Without exit polls, we have a harder time in determining which arguments were decisive, but it seems safe to posit that a majority thought the Critz jobs plan would actually create jobs.

It’s not always about Pelosi: This is the second straight special House election where the candidate of the Right insisted it was a nationalized election, and fell short of expectations.

#ad#For political junkies, a campaign on national themes is the natural and obvious choice. But no one ever asked the voters of either this Pennsylvania or that New York district whether they wanted their local House race to be a proxy war between two national parties. Up in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, there were plenty of voters who care about widening the St. Lawrence Seaway, redevelopment around Plattsburgh Air Force Base, highway plans between Watertown and Plattsburgh; topics that don’t get asked about on appearances on the Sean Hannity show or CNN. Hoffman’s botching of an interview with the Watertown Daily Times editorial board was much more harmful than it seemed at the time; no conservative should emulate Dick Armey in his dismissal of “regional concerns as ‘parochial’ issues that would not determine the outcome of the election.”

Tim Burns never quite emulated those comments, but he did repeatedly declare his candidacy a referendum on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Obama administration. Considering how badly the pair poll in the district, that simply wasn’t the case. Conservatives chuckle at Democrats who constantly invoke George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and note that neither of those figures will be on the ballot this November. Well, Obama and Nancy Pelosi weren’t on the ballot Tuesday, either.


The day before the election, Critz’s website focused on his endorsements by local newspapers and local unions, emphasizing that the organizations within the community preferred him. By contrast#…#

First-time candidate: Tim Burns didn’t make a lot of mistakes. His first ad emphasized his deep roots in Johnstown, and his formation of a small business that created jobs in the district. But working in the business world doesn’t necessary build your name recognition or generate a reputation where people become inclined to vote for you to represent them in Washington. By comparison, Mark Critz spent twelve years with John Murtha, and eventually became his district director, a key position in distributing the pork — er, earmarks. The Murtha loyalists knew him, liked him, and trusted him to keep the gravy train going. First-time candidates are starting from scratch when it comes to building their reputations.

#ad#The Democratic primaries helped: Yes, the competitive, down-to-the-wire, clash-of-the-titans battle between five-term-incumbent party-switcher Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak drove Democratic interest and turnout, and Burns had nothing comparable on the Republican side. But does that factor account for a 12,000-vote margin?

Actually, it might. Note that in this district, voters cast their ballots for the primary for November’s election and the special election for the remainder of Murtha’s term on the same day. In the primary, 83,000 Pennsylvanians cast ballots on the Democratic side; only 46,000 did on the GOP side. In the special election, it was about 71,000 votes for Democrat Critz, 59,000 for Burns. In other words, at least 13,000 of Burns’s voters were not interested in casting a ballot in the GOP primary, which suggests that most were either Democrats or independents.

So where were this district’s Republicans? In 2008, Bill Russell had 113,000 votes against Murtha, in what was, obviously, one of the most dramatic Election Days in recent memory. Both John McCain and George W. Bush had 133,000 votes. Yes, it’s a special election, and turnout is always significantly lower for elections not held in November. But a key part of winning a special election is getting out the vote among your party’s base, and in this area, the Burns campaign dramatically underperformed. Traditionally, Republicans perform better than usual in special elections.

Burns won the primary, and will face Critz on the ballot again in November. He will need to dramatically improve his get-out-the-vote operations or hope that the state’s leading Republicans, Senate candidate Pat Toomey and gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett, have epic coattails.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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