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.

In a year in which the election is clearly about Main Street’s disconnect from Washington, the Critz campaign made the curious decision to ask Vice President Joe Biden to raise money for his campaign this Friday in downtown Pittsburgh – outside the district.

If you’re going to have Biden fund-raise for you, why not have “Mr. Scranton, Pa.” stump for you as well – inside the district?

The simple answer is that this is coal country, and Biden famously said during the 2008 campaign that he did not support clean-coal, backing that up with an emphatic “No coal plants here in America!”

Democrats know they have a problem, which is why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has deployed the best of its best to parachute in and win the race. Its narrative appears to be the same one it is using nationally: Wall Street is bad, big banks are bad.

Do they not understand that this election is about jobs? People in every district do not like seeing bad guys get away with bad stuff – but they also do not like hearing that the government wants to control anyone’s salary, wondering how long until they are next.

To win this race, these two candidates must appeal to voters’ needs: Jobs. You either start where the voters are, or you look out of touch – which is where the Critz campaign is stuck, heading in the opposite direction of voters.

Burns’ challenge is to not allow the race to become a referendum on confidence. He started on the ground with voters last August; if he fails to explain his plan for fixing Washington, then doubt will increase voter fear and open the door for Democrat scare tactics to work.

A lot of incumbent Democrats are in a similar position across the country, in places which lean to Democrats but are competitive, conservative, and fed up with D.C. politics-as-usual that Obama once railed against but seems incapable of changing.

This race will be decided at the local level – special elections always are – but “Both sides realize … the result could resound across the country,” says Wood.

If you doubt that, just think back to a special election a few months back, when Republican Scott Brown's upset in Massachusetts turned the political world on its head.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.