By Louis Jacobson
In a stirring victory for Democrats, Mark Critz held on to the late Rep. John Murtha’s seat, beating Republican Tim Burns, 53-45, in a contest where the GOP had initially seemed to have everything going its way.
As expected, Critz won by 18 points in his – and Murtha’s – home base of Cambria County, which includes Johnstown. He was well known there from years as a top aide to the legendary appropriator.
But somewhat more surprisingly, Critz also won several counties that were not part of Murtha’s core territory. Critz edged Burns in GOP-heavy Westmoreland County, and he won several counties in the district’s southern tier where Burns was presumed to have strength. Critz won by 20 points in Fayette County, by 16 in Greene County and by 4 in Washington County.
Burns only managed to win Somerset County and Indiana County, which together have very few votes.
“The GOP’s attempt to nationalize the special election failed miserably,” said Melanie Blumberg, a political scientist at California University of Pennsylvania, which is located in the district. “The GOP setback was in large measure due to Crtiz’ understanding of district voters who are socially conservative and economically liberal, or at least left of center.”
Bracken Burns, a Democratic commissioner in Washington County (and no relation to Tim Burns), told PoliticsPA that Critz’s win was “a well-deserved victory for a loyal staffer and an energetic campaigner. The Critz victory should dampen Republican optimism for the general election.”
Independent national analysts credited Critz and the Democrats with running a strong campaign operation, enabling the party to counter strong political headwinds that should have helped the Republican candidate.
In prepared remarks for his victory speech in Johnstown, Critz told supporters, “Tonight, the voters of this district rejected the false attacks and partisan divisions. Instead, they came together – as Democrats, Republicans, Independents to support our fight for jobs.“
Also today, Critz and Burns won their primaries for the right to face each other this fall for the full two-year term. To do so, Burns staved off a surprisingly strong challenge from Bill Russell, a favorite of the tea party movement, winning by about 10 points.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, noted in a statement that the National Republican Congressional Committee spent nearly $1 million on the race, plus another nearly $600,000 by outside groups.
“For all of their bluster about building a national wave this year, including RNC Chairman Michael Steele’s guarantee of victory for Tim Burns, Republican policies were once again rejected when it came time to face the voters,” Van Hollen said.
The race didn’t really jell until about six weeks from Election Day, when both parties became obsessed with winning it in order to demonstrate momentum for the pivotal 2010 midterm elections. For a while, the polls seemed to show Burns ahead, and Republicans told pollsters that they were more eager to vote.
In the final two weeks, Critz pulled even. Still, the size of the victory for Critz exceeded what many national experts had expected.
In addition to facing a headwind of local negativity toward Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress, Critz had the challenge of simultaneously embracing Murtha and distancing himself from some of his votes. Murtha voted for the House Democratic bills on health care and cap-and-trade; Critz says he would have opposed them.
Critz won despite a broad national reaction against government spending that Murtha came to personify. The anti-spending, anti-Washington feeling is considered especially strong in many blue-collar districts like this one, but Critz managed to win while articulating a jobs-and-spending message.
The district was the only one in the country to back Democrat John Kerry for president in 2004 and Republican John McCain in 2008.