By Alex Roarty and Louis Jacobson
PoliticsPA Staff Writers
Gov. Ed Rendell said Monday he hasn’t decided whether he’ll hold a special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha on or before the state’s May 18th primary.
The governor told reporters on a conference call that his “inclination as always is to save money” but said later congress is considering “some extra special issues” right now that demand the 12th Congressional District have representation. Holding a special election separate from the primary would like cost the state at least several hundred thousand dollars.
Rendell has 10 days to declare a vacancy and decide when to hold a special election, said a spokesman for the Department of State. The special election then has to be at least 60 days later.
A special election, although it can be held on the same day, is not the same as the primary. Candidates theoretically might have their names on two separate ballots on May 18 — one for the primary, the next for the special election.
If the special election is held before May 18, the winning candidate must have his or her name on the primary ballot if they want to seek re-election, meaning they would be forced to campaign for and win two elections within months of each other.
Party rules for Democrats and Republicans will determine how the special election candidate is selected. For Republicans, each county committee in the district will be assigned a certain number of conferees to send to the selection meeting. The conferees will vote to decide who becomes the party’s candidate.
For Democrats, the county committees in the 12th Districts will meet to recommend a candidate to the state party’s 50-member executive committee. The executive committee, comprising members from across Pennsylvania, will decide whether to endorse a candidate.
The 12th District is spread across southwest Pennsylvania, including parts of Greene, Fayette, Allegheny, Cambria, Washington, Armstrong, Somerset, Westmoreland and Indiana counties.
The district is moderate, having split its support of Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama at 49 percent in 2008. Murtha, despite receiving an unusually difficult challenge from Republican Bill Russell, won re-election by nearly 20 points.
Already, speculation has begun over who could succeed the longest serving congressman in Pennsylvania’s history.
“Keep an eye on Senator John Wozniak,” one Democratic strategist told PoliticsPA. “He has been speculated as Murtha’s successor for years”
Wozniak, in an interview, said “decisions will have to be made” but declined to say if he was interested in running.
Republicans already had two candidates, Tim Burns and Russell, running against Murtha, but a GOP strategist said they might look elsewhere for a nominee.
“My take is Wozniak is the Democratic candidate and the Republicans will make an aggressive push to get (state Rep.) Dave Reed (R-Indiana) into the race,” the insider said. “He’s young, aggressive, and can raise money.
“This seat will flip if we get someone like Reed in,” the Republican said.
Although Rendell indicated he might hold the election before the May 18, doing so on the primary might be beneficial to Democrats because of the party’s competitive Senate and gubernatorial races.
One longtime political observer in southwestern Pennsylvania said that there are some obvious names on the Republican side. Retired Army Lt. Col. William Russell, who took 42 percent of the vote against Murtha in 2008, was already planning on running again. Some suggest that he’s too conservative for the district, though for either a special election or for this fall’s midterm election, that may not be a problem given the current political environment.
Meanwhile, another former Murtha challenger, Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey, would be running for the first time since the death of her locally influential father-in-law, Frank Irey.
Another possible name is Kim Ward, a former Westmoreland county commissioner now serving as a state senator. “She is personable and smart,” the political observer said. “If she is not in the district, she might be convinced to move.”
Several additional names are being bandied about on the Democratic side. Greene County Commission Chairman Pam Snyder would have been a logical contender, but she has just announced that she’s running against state Rep. Bill DeWeese (D), who would have been a strong contender in his own right had he not been indicted.
Other possibilities include State Sen. Richard A. Kasunic, Washington County Commissioner Bracken Burns and Vince Zapotosky, the chairman of the Fayette County Commission.
Political handicapper Charlie Cook today re-rated the seat a Toss-Up.