Democrats: no reason to celebrate

Pennsylvania primary results don't bode well for them in the fall

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The spin is in. Here's how the webzine Politico expressed the conventional wisdom about the outcome of the special election for what had been Jack Murtha's seat in Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district:

"In the only House race that really mattered to both parties ... Republicans failed spectacularly, losing on a level playing field where, in this favorable environment, they should have run roughshod over the opposition," wrote Jonathan Martin and Charles Mahtesian.

If this is widely believed, it may turn out to be a good thing for Republicans that Democrat Mark Critz, a former Murtha aide, defeated Republican Tim Burns in PA 12.

First, there'll be no more smugness among Republicans about coasting to a takeover of the House in November.

Second, Democrats in swing districts may now underestimate how much trouble they could be in.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Mahtesian have a curious notion of what constitutes a "level playing field." Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in Pennsylvania's 12th district and Democratic turnout was goosed by competitive primaries for U.S. senator and governor, while the GOP statewide primaries were yawners.

The surge for Rep. Joe Sestak against Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic Senate primary is mainly what did in Mr. Burns, an analyst for the National Republican Congressional Committee told Jim Geraghty of National Review.

"Sestak's surge ... drove a sudden interest in voting among the Democratic base. This analyst thinks these Sestak-driven voters amounted to 8,000-10,000 voters, roughly the size of Critz's margin of victory," Mr. Geraghty said.

Mr. Burns wanted to make the election a referendum on Obamacare and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but Mr. Critz wouldn't play ball. He presented himself as a pro-life, pro-gun moderate who opposed Obamacare and carbon taxes.

This approach should serve Mr. Critz well in the general election. But it will be difficult for Democrats who voted for the stimulus bill, cap and trade and Obamacare to emulate it.

And, noted Sean Trende of RealClear Politics, more than 60 seats held by Democrats are more favorable to Republicans than is Pennsylvania's 12th.

Though he must be considered the favorite, Mr. Critz is by no means a shoe-in in the fall. There were 82,710 votes cast in the simultaneous Democratic primary in the 12th district, but Mr. Critz got just 70,710 in the special election (with 99.83% of precincts reporting). That means 14.5 percent of those who voted in the Democratic primary didn't vote for Mr. Critz in the special election.

There were only 45,809 votes cast in the Republican primary, but Mr. Burns got 60,587 votes in the special election. Mr. Burns got 32.3 percent more votes than were cast in the Republican primary.

Republican optimism for November has been based mostly on opinion polls indicating independents are leaning heavily toward the GOP. But little of Mr. Burns' support in the special election came from independents. Only 6,295 votes more were cast in the special election -- 4.7 percent of the total -- than were cast in the Democratic and Republican primaries combined.

Pennsylvania's primaries are closed. Independents can't vote in them. Consequently, Pennsylvania has a smaller proportion of unaffiliated voters -- 11.6 percent -- than do most states. That's more than twice the proportion of unaffiliated voters who voted in the special election in the 12th district. Independents can vote in November.

What this means is that virtually all of Mr. Burns' additional votes came from Democrats. How many other Democratic candidates in swing districts could suffer that high a proportion of defections and survive?

Two who probably can't are Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper in Pennsylvania's 3rd district, and Paul Kanjorski in the 11th district.

Just 47,183 votes were cast in the Democratic primary in Ms. Dahlkemper's district, of which she got 34,534. In the Republican primary, 54,055 votes were cast, despite no statewide races to draw GOP voters to the polls.

There were also more votes in the Republican primaries than in the Democratic primaries in the districts represented by Democrats Patrick Murphy, Chris Carney and Tim Holden, and in the district currently held by Rep. Sestak.

Rep. Kanjorski could muster just 49.3 percent of the vote against two opponents in his primary. For an incumbent, that's a recipe for toast come November.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The (Toledo) Blade ( jkelly@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1476).


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