Gubernatorial Turnout May Affect Murtha Special

Posted May 3, 2010 at 6:06pm

The two major statewide primary races in Pennsylvania might have less of an effect on Democratic turnout in the 12th district special election than party leaders had originally hoped.

Several public polls show the race to succeed the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) as too close to call, even though Democrats have a more than a 2-1 voter registration advantage in the southwestern Pennsylvania House district. And although much can happen in the two weeks left until the May 18 primary, Republicans will likely not have to overcome as large of a Democratic turnout boost as most experts anticipated in the special election scheduled for the same day.

“There’s going to be a lackluster turnout in part because of the governor’s race not generating the kind of interest that usually occurs, especially with an open seat,” said Jack Hanna, the chairman of the southwestern caucus for the state Democratic Party. “I don’t think the turnout is going to be massive.”

The stakes are high for both parties in the special election between Mark Critz (D), a former Murtha aide, and businessman Tim Burns (R), and the national campaign committees have spent heavily in the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had made $472,000 in independent expenditures in the race as of Monday, while the National Republican Congressional Committee had spent $728,000.

But it’s the bragging rights for winning the seat that could be most valuable for either party: If Republicans win the seat, it will be their first competitive special House election win of the 2010 cycle and they can say the tide is officially turning in their favor. If Democrats win the seat, they can claim momentum heading into the 2010 election and hold on to the seat held for 36 years by Murtha, one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) top allies.

When Gov. Ed Rendell (D) in February called the special election for the same day as the statewide primary, Democrats were expected to get a huge boost from the big registration advantage in the 12th district. But with Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato leading the Democratic gubernatorial primary by double digits in the polls, it’s no longer likely that his battle with Pennsylvania State Auditor General Jack Wagner, who comes from the same region, will drive turnout in the district.

“By normal off-year election terms, it will be higher than normal. Is it going to be momentous? I don’t think it’s reached that,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who has endorsed Onorato for governor.

Most of all, Wagner’s inability to raise as much money as Onorato made the gubernatorial race less competitive in southwestern Pennsylvania. This could change in the last couple weeks as he spends every penny to defeat Onorato, Doyle said.

“Wagner had to conserve his resources because he’s not as well-funded as Onorato.” Doyle added. “The last two weeks, whatever he has, is going to come out.”

The other two major Democratic gubernatorial candidates, former Rep. Joe Hoeffel and state Sen. Anthony Williams, have bases in southeastern Pennsylvania.

And while the Democratic Senate primary has become more competitive in recent weeks, that appears to be playing out much more in the southeastern Pennsylvania bases of Sen. Arlen Specter and his challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak.

“You would think that where there is a contested Senate seat race such as we have with Specter and Sestak, and there being an open gubernatorial seat race, the enthusiasm would be a lot more significant than it is,” Hanna said. “And it has just not happened.”

Even polls paid for by Democrats show a tight race for the House seat. An Anzalone Liszt Research poll conducted for the DCCC’s IE arm from April 27-29 showed Critz with a statistically insignificant lead over Burns, 43 percent to 41 percent. A poll paid for by the liberal Web site Daily Kos conducted April 26-28 showed Burns leading Critz, 46 percent to 40 percent with 14 percent undecided.

“I think intensity is clearly on our side. The voters a month ago were angry. But since the health care bill and our numbers are showing this, they’re absolutely furious,” Burns adviser Kent Gates said. “This is the marquee race, and this is the race that is going to drive turnout.”

Indeed, the House race is attracting many well-known visitors to the region.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who won his seat in an upset special election victory earlier this year, announced Monday that he is scheduled to campaign for Burns four days before the election, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) hosted a rally there recently.

Critz announced Monday that West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) would do an event with him, and Vice President Joseph Biden hosted a fundraiser outside of the district in downtown Pittsburgh for the House candidate.

But aside from Manchin, Biden and some help from Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), it’s unlikely Critz will be boosted by any national figures coming to the district.

“President [Barack] Obama would hurt Mark Critz, and he knows it. Nancy Pelosi would be lethal, and he knows it. Gov. Rendell is unpopular in western Pennsylvania and he knows it,” said Jon Delano, a political analyst in Pittsburgh. “I’m hard-pressed to think of a particular Democrat in Washington who would be helpful to Mark Critz.”