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Pennsylvania Special: Only One Piece in Bigger Picture

Less than a day after the polls closed in the May 18 Pennsylvania special election, I left the country.

But e-mails followed me everywhere, and I read with some surprise the post-election assessments of the meaning of Democrat Mark Critz’s substantial victory over Republican Tim Burns in the race to succeed the late Rep. John Murtha (D).

I understand that we live in an era when exaggeration is the norm, but characterizing the GOP loss in that special election as evidence that Republicans can’t win the House is about as misguided as the pre-election assessments that the special was a “must win” for Republicans.

Critz’s victory was very welcome news for Democrats and a good reminder that candidates, campaigns and district fundamentals matter. Conservative Democrats, at this point in the cycle, can still win in conservative Democratic districts, even if President Barack Obama isn’t popular.

But while the result certainly ought to be a dose of humility for Republicans who have talked nonsensically about gaining 50, 60 or even 70 seats in November, the result in Pennsylvania wasn’t a game-changer.

From the time Republicans won the House in 1994 to their loss in the 2006 elections, the GOP never held Murtha’s district. Since that district wasn’t a “must win” for them then, it can’t possibly be regarded as one now.

The argument about whether Pennsylvania’s 12th is a swing district or a Democratic district obviously is important. Not surprisingly, the answer is somewhere in between the two alternatives.

Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) carried the district very narrowly in 2008, and state Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) exceeded 50 percent of the vote there in his re-election that same year. Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) only squeezed by George W. Bush in the district in 2004, while then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter carried the district (without winning a majority) in 2004. In other words, Republicans can run very competitively in the district, even winning it.

But at other times, the district’s Democratic heritage shows. Democrat Al Gore defeated Bush in the district in 2000 by a solid 11 points (54 percent to 43 percent), and Bill Clinton carried it comfortably twice.

More recently, 2009 state Supreme Court nominee Joan Orie Melvin (R), a western Pennsylvania native who won her race by an unexpectedly comfortable 8 points statewide and carried Chester, Delaware and Bucks counties in the southeastern corner of the state, drew only 48.5 percent of the vote in the 12th.

This is a picture of a narrowly Democratic district that moves toward the GOP when Republicans can establish a clear ideological contrast. When they can’t — and they didn’t last week — they don’t win.

Of course, the much ballyhooed “mood for change” should have boosted GOP prospects in the special election and given voters an opportunity to send a message of dissatisfaction to the president. They didn’t do that.

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