Later this month, voters in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District will go to the polls to elect a replacement for John Murtha, who passed away earlier this year. The race promises to have major implications for the November midterms.

Pennsylvania’s 12th District stretches for more than 100 miles across the southwestern corner of the state. Like the rest of greater Pittsburgh, the district has been trending Republican in recent decades, but voters here are not really “Reagan Democrats.” Whereas places like Macomb County, Michigan, famously swung to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, southwestern Pennsylvania voted for Jimmy Carter, then Walter Mondale. Nixon won the region in 1972, but that was a blip brought about by the disastrous McGovern campaign. In reality, it was George W. Bush who broke through in the historically Democratic counties of this region in 2004—and, amazingly, John McCain topped him four years later.

If the electoral history of the 12th District is unique, the political challenge facing the Republicans there is most certainly not. Like tens of thousands of voters in the Ohio River Valley, Democrats who live in the 12th District belong to a party that—on a national level—does not really exist anymore. Southwestern Pennsylvania swung to the Democrats in 1932 and has been loyal ever since. Yet today’s Democratic party is more the party of George McGovern than Franklin Roosevelt. The members who hold the key leadership posts in the 111th Congress typically hail from far left districts on the coasts. They promote a left-wing social agenda and the redistribution of wealth to the party’s extensive client groups—labor unions, trial lawyers, environmentalists, and so on—while Middle America foots the bill.

Democratic politicians still win districts like Pennsylvania’s 12th by masquerading as members of the old party. They emphasize their commitment to fiscal discipline, support of gun rights, belief in low taxes, and opposition to abortion. Yet while they might run for Congress as the heirs of Harry Truman, they vote in Congress as the lieutenants of Nancy Pelosi. Time and again, Speaker Pelosi has managed to hold onto enough “conservative” Democrats on controversial votes like the stimulus bill, cap and trade, and health care.

If the Republican party is to retake the House of Representatives in November, it will have to expose these Democrats for what they are—Pelosi loyalists who say one thing on the campaign trail and then do another on Capitol Hill. The Republicans will have to rebrand the Democratic party on the local level, making voters see that it is no longer the party of Jackson, Roosevelt, or even Clinton—but of Obama, Pelosi, and Reid. This job starts in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District in the May special election.

Tim Burns, the GOP’s candidate, is aware that this will be no easy feat. His opponent, Mark Critz, has predictably been working overtime to brand himself as a conservative Democrat. Critz has run ads that emphasize his opposition to abortion and support of gun rights. He has also positioned himself as the heir to Murtha. While Murtha was a lightning rod for controversy nationwide in his later years, he had a solid reputation in his district as a man who could deliver the goods during tough economic times. Critz was Murtha’s district director, and he has promised to carry on Murtha’s tradition of bringing home the bacon.

Burns isn’t buying any of it. “Critz is all talk and no action,” he explains. For starters, Murtha’s mastery of the congressional logroll depended on his plum position as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. That job now belongs to Norman Dicks of Washington State, who won’t be giving it to Critz anytime soon. “Critz won’t even have a seat at the table,” Burns says.

He also believes Critz’s pledge to be a conservative Democrat is an empty one. Pulling from his jacket pocket an ad touting a Pelosi fundraiser for Critz, Burns exclaims, “If there’s any question where Mark Critz’s loyalty is, this answers it!” Ticking off Critz’s flip-flops on key issues like jobs, health care, and taxes, he concludes, “We have to show people that he’s a me-too candidate. When it comes down to it, we know how he’s going to vote.”

Burns is exactly the kind of candidate Republicans should hope to run everywhere. After graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1990, he started a small pharmacy technology company in his basement. By the time he sold it in 2003, it had more than 400 employees—a good record to run on during this jobless economic recovery. Burns comes across like a businessman fed up with political gamesmanship, not an ambitious politician out for his own advantage. “This is not my dream job,” he says, with just a trace of that distinctive Pittsburgh accent. “I’m doing this because I’m worried about the future of this country. It’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to turn things around.”

Importantly, Burns grew up in Johnstown, Murtha’s hometown. This could be a major plus for the Republican nominee. In the final stages of the 2008 campaign, it appeared that Murtha might have a close race on his hands—but he ultimately won the district by 40,000 votes. Yet nearly half of Murtha’s margin came from Cambria County, where Johnstown is located. The rest of the district saw a much tighter contest. “We’re going to surprise Mark Critz” in Johnstown, Burns promises. “I believe I’m going to win Cambria County.”

Polling has shown a tight race—with nearly one out of five voters claiming to be undecided. While it is tough to poll a district like this one, those numbers square with common sense. Voters in Pennsylvania’s 12th District do not have a natural political home—they’re not Democrats anymore, but they’re not yet Republicans, either. This special election could go a long way toward indicating where they go next, and the results here will be of consequence for November.

There are a dozen congressional districts in the Ohio River Valley—stretching from northwestern Pennsylvania to central Illinois—that elect “conservative” Democrats who have supported the Pelosi agenda. If Tim Burns can pull off a win in Pennsylvania’s 12th District next month, it will send a message that these Democrats’ days of talking conservative while voting liberal may finally be coming to an end.

Jay Cost is the author of the Horse Race Blog at RealClearPolitics.com.

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