As Clock Winds Down, Money Flows Into Race For Murtha’s House Seat

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Along with the high-profile Senate primaries this Tuesday, another race to watch will be the PA-12 special election, for the Johnstown-area House seat formerly held by the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha. Democratic candidate Mark Critz, a former Murtha aide, and businessman Tim Burns are fighting it out for the swing seat — and a lot of money has been spent along the way.

In the most recent federal filings, the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent a total of nearly $960,000 on the race, including a $230,000 expenditure in the last few days. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $937,000, including $291,000 in the last few days. The candidates have also raised a lot of money, and spent the majority of it so far: Burns has raised a total of $1.18 million, including $380,000 of his own money, and Critz has raised about $784,000.Outside groups have also poured in a fair amount of cash. The most memorable outside ad would have to be from RightChange.com, “Attack of the 50-Ft. Pelosi.” “Now, gorged on our tax dollars, Pelosi has grown into a power-hungry goliath, defying the will of the American people,” the announcer says. “Who has the power to stop her? Who can save America? You — the Pennsylvania Voter!” The group spent a total of $192,000 on the production and broadcasting expenses.

Murtha was first elected in a 1974 special election, and held the seat for 36 years until his death in February 2010. The district voted very narrowly for John McCain in 2008, by less than one point — the only district in the country to switch from John Kerry in 2004 to McCain in 2008, having voted for Kerry 51%-48% in 2004. CQ rates the race as a toss-up. Stuart Rothenberg also calls it a pure toss-up, while Charlie Cook calls it lean-Republican.

The TPM Poll Average gives Burns an insignificant edge of 41.8%-41.3%. And the polls have been very close the whole time, putting this race up in the air.

Another outside ad is this one from the labor-backed Alliance For Retired Americans, promoting Critz, for which they have spent $38,000. The ad touts Critz’s opposition to privatizing Social Security:

From the beginning of this race, the Republicans set out to make this race a referendum on the new health care reform law, with an ad accusing Critz of supporting it. Interestingly, Critz then responded with his own ad — declaring that he opposed the new health care law. So if Burns wins, the GOP will be able to spin the race as a repudiation of the law — and if Critz wins, Dems won’t be able to honestly spin a victory as an affirmation of it.

Instead, Democratic ads have generally attacked Burns as a greedy businessman, responsible for jobs being exported overseas — a bit issue in western Pennsylvania.

A key point about this race, though, is that the election be held on May 18, the same day as the statewide primaries. There are more contested Democratic races than Republican ones that day — most notably the Senate primary between incumbent Senator and ex-Republican Arlen Specter and Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak — but also a multi-candidate Democratic primary for governor. And this could serve to drive up Democratic turnout in the district. “Clearly, the Democrats are excited to say the least, wherever their loyalties lie,” a Democratic source told us confidently. “We expect them to be coming out in droves on Tuesday.”

A Republican source told us that the race will all come down to turnout, and agreed that the Senate primary will benefit Critz: “I think as the [Senate] race heats up, the clear beneficiary would be the Democrats. There’s a lack of a competitive race in the Republican primary.”

Late Update: Shortly after we posted this, the Cook Report changed the race to toss-up.

This post has been edited from the original.

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