The biggest news in politics this week is the death of Rep. John Murtha (D-PA). Murtha passed after complications arose from a gall bladder operation. Council for a Livable World extends our condolences to his family and friends.
First elected in 1974, Murtha was the longest serving member of the Pennsylvania delegation. Murtha was the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress. Murtha dominated Pennsylvania politics for decades, and as the long serving Chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee he was a powerful player on Capital Hill.
While he was widely regarded as a conservative Democrat and a hawk, Murtha played a key role in advancing several progressive causes. Most notably, Murtha single-handedly shifted the debate over the Iraq war when, in November 2005, he called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Because of Murtha’s reputation as a hawk, his credibility on military matters and his initial support for the war, his decision to call for withdrawal gave political cover to other Members of Congress and Congressional candidates to do the same. The momentum this gave Democrats in the 2006 elections was a major factor in their landslide victory which then led to the battles fought over the war in Congress throughout 2007.
More recently, Rep. Murtha was the sponsor of a succesful amendment cutting funding for the expensive and unnecessary F-22 jet fighter from the Pentagon budget.
From a political point of view, Murtha’s death creates an unexpected competitive race for his House seat.
Governor Ed Rendell will have to decide whether to hold a special election to fill the vacant seat or to hold the election in conjunction with the regular May 18th primaries. It is likely he will select the latter option in order to save the state from having to finance a special election, but no official decision has been made yet. If Rendell does go with the May 18th date, the party Committees will select a nominee. If a special election is held, though, it will be preceded by a special primary election.
Republicans clearly sense an opportunity to pick up a Democratic seat. Although this is a traditionally moderate district that both Al Gore and John Kerry carried, John McCain won it by a narrow margin in 2008 (49.4% – 49.0%). It is the only district won by Kerry that McCain picked up.
As high as Republican hopes are, however, there are a number of factors that indicate that this will be a close contest. For a detailed analysis, head over to The Fix, but here’s a quick rundown:
Potential Candidates: As the Dean of Pennsylvania Democratic Politics, Murtha built up a strong bench of Democratic office holders. There are a host of possible candidates with proven electoral experience and name recognition across the district. The Republican bench, on the other hand, is fairly bare.
Turnout: If the primary is held on May 18th, it will coincide with hotly contested Democratic primaries for Governor and Senate. Those primaries will drive up Democratic turnout in the race for Murtha’s seat. Republicans have no similar contests to drive up enthusiasm.
Money Talks: There is a vast disparity in the amount of money the national parties can invest in the race. At the end of 2009, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had $16.7 million in the bank as compared to $2.7 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Because the compressed schedules of special elections limit the time candidates have to fundraise, spending by the national parties is often a key factor. In addition, with so little cash-in-hand Republicans will have to make a strategic decision of whether to invest in this race or a special election in Hawaii, where they believe they have a chance to pick up Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s seat. Democrats have the luxury of having enough cash to play in both races.
Selection Process:   Those who remember Scott Murphy’s upset victory in New York in the special election for Rep. John McHugh’s seat will remember that a key factor was that the Republican candidate was selected by party leaders in what many grassroots activists believed was a back room deal. The far right wing of the party ran another candidate as the Conservative Party candidate, splitting the Republican vote and handing the Democrat a victory. If the election is held on May 18th, Republican Party leaders will have to be careful to select a candidate that is both electorally viable and palatable to Tea Party activisits.