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It’s 1974 All Over Again

Special elections are a harbinger of November.

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By SEAN TRENDE
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The first signs that the Republicans were in for a terrible November in 1974 came in February of that year. Pennsylvania’s 12th District, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of West Central Pennsylvania, had elected a Republican to Congress in every election for a century except in the very worst Republican years: 1922, 1934, and 1948. In 1972, it had reelected its 12-term congressman, John P. Saylor, with 68 percent of the vote. 

It’s 1974 All Over Again

Saylor died in October 1973, and a special election was set for February with Republicans expected to keep the seat. But a young Vietnam veteran named John P. Murtha defeated the Republican nominee, Harry Fox, by fewer than 250 votes. The result sent shock waves through Washington, which were amplified two weeks later when Democrat Richard VanderVeen defeated Republican Robert VanderLaan to claim the safe Republican seat of the new vice president, Gerald Ford. More Republican special election losses followed—in Ohio and California—en route to a thorough routing in the general election.

History may be on the verge of repeating itself. Murtha passed away in February of this year, and a special election has been called for May 18. The Pennsylvania 12th is hardly recognizable as the one that elected Murtha in 1974—it was merged into the heavily Democratic 20th District in 2002. But nonetheless the 12th has been moving sharply toward the Republicans in recent years, along with the rest of Appalachia. After preferring Al Gore by 11 points in 2000, it went only narrowly for John Kerry in 2004. In 2008, it went for John McCain and earned the distinction of being the only district in the country to switch its vote from Democrat to Republican.

The area leans Democratic at the local level, where registered Democrats heavily outnumber registered Republicans. Nevertheless, according to polling performed by GOP strategist Gene Ulm, Obama has only a 42 percent approval rating in the district, while health care reform is opposed by 64 percent of likely voters.

Democrats nominated Murtha’s district director, Mark Critz, for the seat. Republicans nominated a businessman with no political record: Tim Burns. Polling shows a tight race, with neither candidate having held more than a 5-point lead. The National Republican Congressional Committee has committed $200,000 to the race and is already running advertisements linking Critz to Obamacare. 

Although Burns is running in about as favorable an environment as one could hope for in a historically Democratic district, the election will be held on the day of the Pennsylvania primary. Given competitive races for the Democratic gubernatorial and senate nominations, turnout could be a boost for Critz.

If Burns does pick up the seat of a man who was almost the Democrats’ majority leader, all attention will turn to Hawaii. Democrat Neil Abercrombie has held the Honolulu-based 1st District since 1990, but he decided to run for governor and resigned (traveling to Hawaii from Washington, D.C., regularly enough to run a credible campaign is nearly impossible). 

Hawaii’s election laws conspire to give Republicans a legitimate shot in this heavily Democratic district. First, it is a mail-in vote, with ballots due to be received the Saturday after the Pennsylvania special election. Second, it is a winner-take-all open election with no preceeding primaries. Republicans and Democrats will run on the same ballot, and the candidate who receives the most votes will win.

Republicans have a solid candidate in Charles Djou, a Honolulu city councilman who already represents much of the district. Democrats have two serious candidates seeking the seat. Ed Case is a moderate who represented Hawaii’s 2nd District in Congress before challenging Senator Dan Akaka in the Democratic primary. This challenge earned him the enmity of much of the Democratic establishment.

The more liberal Democrat is Colleen Hanabusa, the president of the state senate. While many local Democratic officials have lined up behind her, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) perceives Case as the more electable and has made moves to support him. This has resulted in bad feelings among supporters of both candidates and split the local Democratic party. It leaves the door wide open for Djou to squeak through with a plurality of the vote. A Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll released last week had Djou ahead in a tight race: 32 percent to 29 for Case and 28 for Hanabusa. 

Should Burns and Djou win, Democrats will attempt to spin these races as local events that do not bear on the November elections. But the symbolism of Republicans’ picking up the seat of a high-ranking Democrat and then the seat of the district where the president grew up would only feed the already growing narrative of massive Republican gains in the fall.

Sean Trende writes for Real Clear Politics.

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