Gaffes Could Imperil Murtha

Posted November 3, 2008 at 6:47pm

Many jokes have begun with the phrase, “You might be a redneck if …”

That phrase also opens a piece of campaign mail targeting Democratic Rep. John Murtha, who is taking late campaign heat for referring to parts of his southwestern Pennsylvania district as “racist” and “redneck.”

While House Republicans play defense in scores of seats across the country, the party is on offense in two unlikely Pennsylvania districts held by longtime Democratic Members who appear vulnerable today: Murtha and Rep. Paul Kanjorski.

Since he was first elected in 1974, Murtha has risen in his party’s ranks to host fundraisers for fellow Democrats and run for House Majority Leader in 2006. But while the National Republican Congressional Committee has targeted Kanjorski’s seat for almost a year, Murtha’s competitive race emerged a few weeks ago out of nowhere — or rather, out of Virginia.

Retired Army officer William Russell (R), an Iraq War veteran, said he moved his family to Johnstown, Pa., in August 2007 specifically to run against Murtha. Until that time, Russell and his wife worked at the Pentagon and lived with their children in Virginia.

In a phone interview, Russell said it was the Congressman’s other infamous remark on the U.S. Marines in Haditha that prompted him to consider running against Murtha, a decorated Marine colonel who served in Vietnam. In 2006, Murtha made some incendiary comments on an investigation into whether Marines killed more than two dozen Iraqi civilians “in cold blood” in Haditha.

“That was when I made the decision that if I couldn’t find another Iraq War veteran to run against Mr. Murtha, then I would,” Russell said.

Through a spokesman, Murtha declined to be interviewed for this story. However, Murtha has publicly apologized for the “racist” and “redneck” comments, which operatives from both parties agree is the main reason the Democratic titan has become vulnerable at such a late date in the cycle.

But this isn’t the first time Republicans have attempted to target Murtha. In 2006, Murtha defeated Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey (R), 60 percent to 40 percent. Irey raised more than $850,000, but she was outspent by Murtha almost 4 to 1.

Pennsylvania Democratic Party Southwest Caucus Chairman Jack Hanna said Republicans are targeting the race as “payback” for Murtha’s comments against the Iraq War, calling it a GOP “vendetta” against the Congressman.

“They tried to do it before by running Irey two years ago — this time they’ve doubled down,” Hanna said. “They came down on him more ferociously.”

Like Irey, Russell has been able to raise a competitive amount of money running against Murtha, who is often an easy target to fundraise against because of his public opposition to the Iraq War. Russell raised $2.8 million through mid-October, compared with $2.6 million that Murtha raised through the same date.

This cycle’s race, however, is considered to be more competitive than the 2006 matchup. Recent public polls have given Murtha a 4- or 5-point lead over Russell. And in recent weeks, Murtha appears to be running — and raising money — like he’s the underdog.

Former President Bill Clinton campaigned with Murtha on Monday, and the Congressman has been soliciting funds from his fellow Members and liberal activist groups. Murtha made an e-mail plea last week to defense industry lobbyists and wrote to members of the MoveOn.org e-mail list to ask for contributions to his campaign.

“I think the situation is such that [Murtha] rightly so is paying very serious attention to get-out-the-vote efforts and campaigning as hard as he can for these last days and last weeks of the campaign,” Hanna said.

National parties are also playing in the district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure arm was worried enough about Murtha to invest $576,800 into the race as of Saturday. Despite this move, Democrats insist that their internal polling showed Murtha with a 10-point lead over Russell last week.

The National Republican Congressional Committee put up $84,000 in coordinated funds for an ad for Russell’s campaign, while the committee’s IE unit spent almost $500,000 in the district recently.

Some GOP strategists doubt that the Congressman is vulnerable, but his defeat would certainly be a trophy for Republicans on what is expected to be an otherwise dismal night for them. Republicans believe that even if Murtha continues to keep his stronghold in Johnstown, voters in the surrounding area could be willing to vote for someone else, and that could produce a victory for Russell.

After all, the district has changed since Murtha was first elected: What was once a heavily blue-collar area in the Rust Belt, the 12th district now boasts fewer union voters and a more socially conservative electorate. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) carried the district with 51 percent in 2004.

One Keystone state Republican consultant gave Murtha a less than 50 percent chance of keeping his seat on Election Day.

“That is a conservative district, period,” the GOP consultant said. “And Jack running around the country, dumping on the Army, dumping on Marines, dumping on the war, that’s not the Jack they sent 30 years ago.”

Murtha might also suffer from the same anti-incumbent mood across the country that is partly responsible for Kanjorski’s peril, despite what is expected to be a good night for Democrats nationally. With Murtha still under 50 percent in public polling, the Pennsylvania Republican consultant said it’s unlikely that any undecided voters will break for Murtha.

“There’s nobody in that district who doesn’t know who Jack Murtha is,” the consultant said.