Salena Zito

LATROBE – On paper, the nine counties meandering across Western Pennsylvania to form the 12th Congressional District numerically favor Democrats by a nice margin.

In reality, people who live, work and pray here could not be more removed from the Democratic Party ruling out of Washington. More rural/suburban than urban/suburban, it is chock-full of conservative Democrats who believe in hard work, God and guns.

It is a world that elite liberals fail to understand, as one Democratic strategist confessed in an e-mail: “Have to admit that America is about as foreign as France to me.”

On May 18, ex-congressional aide Mark Critz, a Democrat, and Johnstown businessman Tim Burns, a Republican, will face each other in a special election to fill the unexpired term of the late Congressman Jack Murtha, a contest that will be repeated – to fill a new two-year term – in November.

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Democrats have a long winning streak in House special elections, notes Isaac Wood, a University of Virginia political analyst: “If that ends now, it will be interpreted as a sign of impending Democratic doom in November.”

Voters here defy conventional wisdom. This was the only congressional district to vote for John Kerry and Jack Murtha in 2004; they trended against the grain and voted for John McCain and Jack Murtha in 2008.

Politics stood still here for more than 30 years. Murtha was the constant force that suspended time.

Critz is trying to take advantage of that by running as the bearer of Murtha’s legacy. Yet that is a problem: Critz is no Murtha, and he does not have the political power to do what Murtha did in this district.

Being Murtha only worked for Murtha.

While Burns is respectful of Murtha’s legacy, he wisely has moved forward to talk about jobs, jobs and more jobs.

Because of the passing of a health-care bill, Democrats in D.C. see this race as very high-stakes, says Wood. “The story-line here, if Critz loses, writes itself: Obama gambled and lost on health care and Democrats across the country are severely endangered, even those in deep-Democratic-blue districts.”

If you were going to send a post-card of a blue-collar district that Hillary Clinton once said Barack Obama could not win, this would be it; it’s where you find those bitter guns- and God-clinging voters that candidate Obama once said were problematic for his party.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.