By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor
Rep. Tim Murphy will face a primary challenge next spring.
Months of recruiting efforts by a small, dedicated group of conservative activists has yielded challenger Evan Feinberg, a 27 year-old native of Washington County who spent the past five years working for various conservative causes in Washington, DC.
“I’m taking the necessary steps to consider a primary challenge against Representative Murphy,” Feinberg confirmed. “The people of western Pennsylvania deserve a true conservative who will put the interests of the country and his constituents before his own.”
Feinberg told PoliticsPA that he resigned his position in the office of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul on Wednesday. He, his wife and infant son will move back to the district on Monday. And as if to ensure he won’t be drawn out of Murphy’s district, he’s moving to the Congressman’s home turf in Upper St. Clair, Allegheny County.
“If I decide to run, I’m going to have going to have very extensive local and national support and I look forward to making this decision in the coming weeks.”
Sources close to Feinberg say that his candidacy is a certainty.
Feinberg has been called a “true believer” – fondly by some, derisively by others – and he has a resume to match. After graduating from Peters Township High School in 2002 and Grove City College in 2006, he started his career as a researcher with the Heritage Foundation. In March of 2008 he moved to the office of Senator Tom Coburn as a Legislative Assistant on health care policy, and in May of 2011 took a position as a senior aide on health care, education and labor policy with Sen. Paul.
He can expect long odds and a tough opponent in Murphy, who isn’t taking anything for granted. He’s retained GOP powerhouse John Brabenderas his campaign consultant, and the Congressman had over $720,000 cash on hand as of the most recent campaign finance report.
“Tim has always said he’s a temporary employee. With his strong record of representing his constituents, he’s looking forward to going before them and seeking their support to renew his two-year contract,” said Susan Mosychuk, Murphy’s Chief of Staff. “Based on his 67% approval rating in the last election, we’re confident that support remains strong throughout his district and frankly, far beyond its current boundaries.”
Mosychuk took direct aim at Feinberg’s residency issue.
“While we never expected someone would move to Pennsylvania from out of state to run here, we’re hearing tons of positive feedback and that just motivates Tim to continue his hard work on their behalf.”
Others took a harsher tone.
Feinberg is, “a career DC staffer, and at 25 or 26 years-old I use the term ‘career’ lightly,” said one source with knowledge of Murphy’s re-election effort. “This kid is in for a rude awakening if he thinks [Murphy] is vulnerable in a primary here. Most [southwest PA] Republicans I know come from union households.”
Sources indicate that Murphy has spent much of the past six months meeting with local party leaders and activists, like this one in July. He has also preemptively courted those in the highly Republican North Hills area, which is likely to join the 18th district after redistricting this year.
“Each time [Murphy] has run he’s done extremely well,” agreed Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey. “I would be very surprised if anyone could mount a successful primary campaign against him.”
Murphy won re-election by 33 percent last year, and perhaps more impressive won by 28 points in 2008. The 18th district has a Cook Partisan Voting Index of R+6, indicating a reliably conservative voting pattern. With the North Hills, the district will be a deeper red.
Critics argue that reliably Republican performance is why Murphy’s voting record is too liberal. They point to issue group ratings, like the Club for Growth stat that has Murphy as the fifth most liberal Republican in Congress in 2010 (right between Reps. Jim Gerlach and Charlie Dent), or his C+ grade from the National Taxpayers Union. And as of the AFL-CIO’s most recent ratings in 2010, Murphy was the fifth-most pro-labor Republican in the country.
They say that makes Murphy vulnerable. Ryan Shafik of Rockwood Strategies, Feinberg’s campaign consultant, was bullish about the young challenger’s chances – particularly given the possibility that national conservative groups might get involved.
“The aspect of Evan’s campaign that’s so exciting is that there are national groups that are looking at him and looking at this campaign and willing to invest in it and support his candidacy,” he said. “Not only that, people the district and throughout state are interested in helping him and contributing to his campaign.”
Shafik has a reputation for working with conservative primary challengers, including PA Sens. John Eichelberger and Mike Folmer. He also worked for Mike Smeltzer, who garnered only 30 percent of the vote in his bid against Rep. Todd Platts last year.
Feinberg’s candidacy is in large part the culmination of recruiting efforts by conservative activists Greg Wrightstone, Jeff Steigerwalt and others. Though none of the three lives in the 18th district, each has had his eyes on a primary for months.
“The Pennsylvania Coalition is very excited to have a conservative, limited government supporter that’s a viable candidate that will be challenge Representative Murphy,” said Wrightstone. “Congressman Murphy’s liberal voting record speaks for itself.”
Interesting note: Heritage Action, a cousin of the Heritage Foundation where Feinberg worked, rated Murphy the 3rd most conservative member of the PA delegation so far in 2011 at a rate of 58 percent. He was behind only Sen. Pat Toomey (87 percent) and Rep. Joe Pitts (83 percent), and 1 point below House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).
Correction: The original version of this story listed Feinberg’s age as 26. He is 27. Additionally, Allegheny County Controller candidate Bob Howard says he was not involved in the recruiting effort.
“I am focused on the Allegheny County Controller race and not involved in the primary recruitment efforts described in your article,” Howard wrote in an email.