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How Republicans lost PA-12, and why Democrats think the Mark Critz prototype could save them in 2010

Republican Tim Burns greets supporters after losing to Democrat Mark Critz in a special congressional election May 18, 2010 by AP Photo

It is the great mystery of our times -- and of this election cycle -- that Republican Tim Burns lost to Democrat Mark Critz in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District.

For one thing, the political climate -- anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, anti-insider -- was in Burns' favor.

For another, the district -- although held for decades by the late John Murtha -- is not safe territory for Democrats. Arizona Republican John McCain carried PA-12 in the 2008 presidential election, and President Obama's approval rating at the moment is in the 30s.

But Democrats believe that in a toxic year for incumbents and despite unfriendly districts, they can win on tactics. The Critz victory -- and it was not even close, with a 53%-45% tally -- suggests they may have a point.

Burns, taking his lead from Republicans in Washington, ran against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Obama's healthcare reform effort and wasteful government spending. "I don't claim to know how Washington works because I don't believe that it does," he said.

Critz talked jobs, jobs, jobs, charging that Burns, as a businessman, outsourced jobs overseas. Burns tried to portray the pro-life, pro-gun Critz as a Washington insider, "one of them." That was technically true -- Critz worked for Murtha -- but the accusation didn't stick because Critz ran as "one of you." Murtha's ability to bring home pork to the 12th district was much appreciated by blue-collar voters strapped for jobs.

In the end, said Jennifer Crider of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  "Critz won PA-12 with a message of creating jobs and stopping the outsourcing of American jobs. ... "Tim Burns lost by nationalizing his message."

Maybe Tip O"Neill was right. Maybe all politics really is local. If that's true, Democrats have a chance to keep the House even in an atmosphere of anti-Washington fervor. Especially if Republicans -- at war within over Republican National Committee leadership and "tea party" passion -- keep thinking this election is about their power instead of the voters' concerns.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Tim Burns talks to supporters after losing to Democrat Mark Critz in the special election to fill Pennsylvania Democrat Jack Murtha's House seat Tuesday. Credit: Associated Press

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So the key to winning in November is to run in a gerrymandered district, that all but guarantees a Democrat wins, dominated by union members and high unemployment then run as fast as possible away from Obama and his policies.

Good luck with that.

You forgot to mention that Critz ran his campaign opposite to the Obama agenda!

"Burns, taking his lead from Republicans in Washington, ran against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Obama's healthcare reform effort and wasteful government spending. "I don't claim to know how Washington works because I don't believe that it does," he said."

So Democrats, many running for re-election, are going to campaign against the Speaker they bow to daily, the disaster of a healthcare bill they forced down our throats, and the monumental spending increases they have been pushing since the day that Obama walked into office?

I sure hope they pursue that strategy (I was for the healthcare bill before I was against it??). That should guarantee a good 70 or 80 seat pickup for the Republicans.

The real reason is that Ed Rendell scheduled the special election on the same day as the primary. Doug Brady at Conservatives for Palin explains:

"In primary elections, voters go to the polls and are asked their party affiliation. They are then given a ballot which corresponds to that affiliation. Independents are given a separate ballot. Nearly 35,000 more voters filled out Democrat ballots than Republican ballots. For Burns to have won, he would have had to overcome those 35,000 votes by a combination of Independents and ticket splitters. Independents, of course, are not known for their high levels of participation in primary elections...quite the opposite in fact.

Ticket splitting is fairly common in general elections but not in primaries as Rendell, a product of the Philadelphia Democrat machine, undoubtedly knows. It's difficult to imagine significant numbers of Democrat voters asking for a Democrat ballot upon arrival at the polls, then voting simultaneously for Critz in the primary and Burns in the special. Partisans, by definition, show up on primary day, not squishy ticket-splitters. Undoubtedly there were a few ticket-splitters, but to expect a sufficient number to swing the election to Burns was pure fantasy. That Burns was able to close that huge gap from 35,000 to 10,000 with Independents and ticket splitters on a primary election day is actually quite impressive. (About 7700 more votes were cast in the special election than in the two primaries combined.)"

Burns gets another bite at the cherry in November.

Phony Mark Critz campaigned like he was a tea party candidate!! The Dems have absolutely no core principles of their own that they can run on. However, having said that, I feel 3 things doomed Burns. 1) he faced a 2-1 Dem - GOP registration deficit, 2)he did not run a smart campaign (for instance, he let go unchallenged the falshood that he wants to raise taxes by 23% on all goods and services, which is only a part of the Fair Tax concept) and 3) most importantly, Pa is a closed primary state. That is, a voter can only vote for a candidate in their registration party and many, many Independents did not turn out in PA-12 because there were no Indies on the primary ballot. That will change in November, trust me!!

another blue dog???? What's the point????? Might as well be a repug win.

The district was gerrymandered by Republicans to pit the Murtha against Mascara (thus guaranteeing them one less D.) So the area's make-up is their own doing.

Further, percentage-wise the turnout was GREATER there for Republicans than Dems AND higher than the rest of the state's. THIS race drew the voters in the 12th, not vice versa.

They can try to spin it anyway they want, but Democrat Critz beat the Republican's full-force all-eggs-in-one-basket effort. Period.

Does anyone actually listen to these candidates? Critz repudiated everything Obama stood for. He was pro-life, pro-gun, anti-stimulus, anti-Obamacare, anti-tax, and wanted to reduce the size of the federal government. I, truthfully, could not see any difference between Critz' positions and those of Burns. They were both running on a conservative platform.

Of course, the democrats probably believe full well that when they are between a rock and a hardplace, Critz will come home to papa and fold like a cheap suit like Stupak. Thus, Critz will vote for Pelosi and allow her to set the agenda. He will vote for critical democratic issues. In short, he said what he had to in order to win the election.


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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