That Democrats held onto a House seat Tuesday night in a conservative corner of Pennsylvania casts new doubt on just how strong the much-vaunted GOP momentum truly is heading into the November midterm elections.
Although primaries shook up both parties, a special election in the Keystone State’s 12th Congressional District was the only election Tuesday in which a Democrat faced a Republican. The result? Democrat Mark Critz beat Republican candidate Tim Burns in a race that even an independent analyst described as “must win” for the GOP.
A former staffer for the late Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), Critz will now take the seat left open when his old boss died in office earlier this year. Critz will serve the remainder of the current term, and will have to face the voters again in November to win a full term.
Without the veteran Murtha, holding the 12th Congressional District in southwestern Pennsylvania was seen as a tough fight for Democrats. It tilts Republican overall, and is seen particularly as socially conservative. Murtha held the seat for decades by casting himself as an economic populist and by steering federal funds back to the economically distressed district.
“In some ways, PA-12 seems to be a must-win for Republicans,” Amy Walters of National Journal declared leading up to Tuesday’s election. “After all, if they can’t win the only district in the country that voted for both John Kerry and John McCain, what does it say about their ability to win other GOP-tilting seats this fall? Republican donors and members cut NRCC chairman Pete Sessions a lot of slack after the losses in New York-23 and -20. Will they be as forgiving if he comes up short once again?”
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the campaign arm of the House GOP, spent $958,897 – one tenth of its cash on hand – and nine outside groups spent more than $445,000 to attempt to defeat Critz, according to the NRCC’s Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
PA-12 is the only district in the country that John Kerry won in his failed 2004 presidential bid and President Obama lost four years later. PA-12 is exactly the type of district that House Republicans need to win this cycle to make the major gains they have been crowing over since they waged a high-pitched battle against healthcare reform and other Democratic priorities, the DCCC says.
Chris Cilizza, the well-known political columnist for washingtonpost.com says, “Both sides see the race as a must-win but, in truth, it is a muster-win for Republicans who have to prove they can emerge victorious in seats like this one — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried it in 2008 — to make a reasonable case that the majority is in play this fall.”
In primary races elsewhere, Kentucky “tea party” Republican Rand Paul beat an establishment GOP candidate to win his party’s nomination to run for a Senate seat this fall. In other Pennsylvania news, two-term Rep. Joe Sestak beat five-term party-switching incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter for the Democratic nomination. Sestak now will face Republican Pat Toomey in November.
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.