The Campaign Spot

Looking Hard at the Democrats in Murtha’s Old District

A Campaign Spot reader asks, “How is it that the polls have Burns up only 1 to 3 points? This is an R+1 district that McCain actually won with Murtha on the ballot during Obama-mania. With only 33 percent approval rating in this district that contains the very demographic that has turned against Obama, shouldn’t Burns really be 10 points ahead (if it is really true that this year will  be a GOP tsunami)?”

It’s worth noting that this is a largely “conservative Democrat” district, not a Republican one. It may seem contradictory, but there are a lot of pro-life, pro-gun voters, often white and members of the working class, who have been voting Democratic all their lives and whose first instinct is to vote for that party.

These were the shot-and-a-beer voters who strongly preferred Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, and that Obama even cracked a joke or two about. For a variety of reasons, Obama is a uniquely tough sell to these demographics – African-American from a big city, liberal, pro-choice, young by presidential standards, bad on guns, bad on coal, no military service, and so on. Murtha endorsed Hillary, and most of the district’s counties went overwhelmingly for her over Obama in the 2008 primary: she carried 75 percent of the vote in Greene County, 72 percent in Cambria County, 79 percent in Fayette County, 69 percent in Westmoreland County, 71 percent in Washington County.

Liberal blogger and campaign strategist Jerome Armstrong thinks that Democrat Mark Critz is harming his own chances by running ads emphasizing how he’s not a liberal: “I’m not sold that he’s making the deal by turning off whatever liberal Democrats there are in PA-12 in the first place.” I’m not sure the district has a significant number of liberal Democrats. Murtha was a big spender, but voted with progressives less often than one might think (31 percent, according to one score); the district has a bit more than 3 percent African-Americans and no significant numbers of Hispanics, Asians, or other minorities. Less than 5 percent have a master’s degree or Ph.D. (Obviously these characteristics aren’t synonyms for liberal, but you do see some cross-over in these groups.) There has never been any significant Green-party challenge to Murtha, and Nader’s share of the 2000 vote in the counties in this district was negligible.

Also worth noting is that while Murtha’s name might be a synonym for corruption outside the district, within the district there’s still a quite a bit of affection; PPP finds 55 percent approved of the work Murtha did while he was representative. (I’m a little surprised that Critz’s ad didn’t emphasize that he’s a former Murtha aide, but I figure that fact comes out early and often in Critz’s appearances in the district.) This district may not love national Democrats, but they like their own Democrats.

In short, Tim Burns can win, in what has been a traditionally tough district for Republicans. But it’s not going to be easy.

Burns is having a money-bomb.

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