Murtha’s Death Triggers Special Election In Swing District

The passing of Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) has triggered a special election that could have national implications for both parties.

Murtha’s district is a swing seat, in general terms. It always returned Murtha by comfortable margins, but underneath that were some close races. John Kerry carried it with 51% in 2004, but it gave John McCain a very narrow 49% plurality in 2008 — the only district in the whole country to actually cross the line from Kerry in 2004 to McCain in 2008.

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell has 10 days to select a date for the election, which could occur at the same time as the regular Pennsylvania primary, May 18, in order to save the substantial money that a separate election would require. Under Pennsylvania laws, there would not be primaries for the special election — instead, the parties would select candidates through their own internal processes. Whoever wins the special election would then face the voters again in the regular 2010 general election.A Republican source in Pennsylvania said that potential GOP candidates for the special election include the two candidates who were already in the race, businessman Tim Burns and 2008 nominee William Russell, as well as a potential new candidate in state Rep. David Reed.

The GOP source said that holding the election on primary day could have a secondary effect — one that would help the Democrats. The statewide primaries for governor and senator are much more contested on the Democratic side than they are for the Republicans, so those races could potentially boost Dem turnout within the 12th District.

That said, the source was still bullish on being able to win the seat: “Depending on the candidates they put up, we feel that’s a seat we could win regardless of what happens on primary day. We see these races have been nationalized, and that’s one that could be nationalized.”

A Democratic source in Pennsylvania said that potential Democratic candidates could include former Lt. Gov. Marc Singel, Murtha’s chief of staff John Hugya, and state Sen. John Wozniak. In particular, Wozniak has long been believed to have wanted the seat when it eventually opened up.

The source said that Democrats can hold the seat, in part due to the benefits that the party brought to the district during Murtha’s time in office, and also denied the possibility of this seat becoming another situation like the Massachusetts special election — in which a different senior Democrat, Sen. Ted Kennedy, was replaced by a Republican. “I think it’s a different place,” said the source. “I don’t think you can necessarily draw all those parallels between a congressional district in southwestern Pennsylvania and a big statewide election in Massachusetts. I think there are more local issues in play.”

The potential does exist that whoever wins the seat could end up holding it for a long time. Murtha himself first won the seat in 1974, in a special election after the death of GOP Rep. John Saylor — who had also first won the seat in a 1949 special election, to replace the deceased previous congressman.