Anti-GOP tide costs Rep. Hart a 4th term

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John Heller, Post-Gazette
U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart thanks supporters, flanked by her brother, Terry, and mother, Albina.
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Concession speech by U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart.

U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart yesterday lost a close race to Democratic challenger Jason Altmire, becoming Western Pennsylvania's sole victim to the anti-Republican, anti-incumbent reshaping of Congress.

Incumbent Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair; John Murtha, D-Johnstown; Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills; and Phil English, R-Erie, all won re-election.

The outspoken and conservative Ms. Hart, R-Bradford Woods, had been accustomed to gaining Democratic votes as a three-term congresswoman and while representing the North Hills in the state Senate for 10 years before that.

This time, however, she ran into a combination of her most vigorous opponent yet in Mr. Altmire and a national tide of disenchantment with Republican leadership in Washington.

She blamed her defeat on negative campaigning by the challenger, who was backed by special interest groups and House Democratic leaders airing frequent anti-Hart ads. Ms. Hart, 44, said colleagues advised her "you need to cut his legs off" in response, but she had no desire to use "mud" to win.

After declaring victory around midnight, Mr. Altmire praised the incumbent in an interview.

"I hold her in the highest regard. She is someone who climbed the ladder through hard work," he said. "I hope she will consult with me as we move forward. I really respect her and value her opinions."

Mr. Altmire denied his campaign was negative, however. He said voters found his public policy background appealing, as a former congressional aide and UPMC health care executive, and, "There was a nice harmonic convergence, with [Bob] Casey at the top of the ticket."

Mr. Altmire, 38, of McCandless, counted on a spillover effect from northern Allegheny County and all or part of Beaver, Butler, Lawrence, Mercer and Westmoreland counties voting heavily for both Mr. Casey, the successful Democratic Senate candidate, and Gov. Ed Rendell. The district has 55,000 more Democrats than Republicans. Many of them are blue-collar and socially conservative, and had shown tendencies in recent elections to either stay home or vote for GOP candidates, including Ms. Hart and President Bush.

The Democrat was propelled to victory by huge margins in Beaver and Lawrence counties, while he was able to win 49 percent of the district's Allegheny County's voters. Ms. Hart easily carried traditionally Republican Butler County.

Ms. Hart, who raised nearly $2 million and outspent the challenger in the fall by a 2-to-1 margin, insisted throughout the fall that she had proven herself to constituents as a hard-working, effective legislator who would be protected from any national tide against Republicans.

The contrast between the two was not as sharp as in some Republican-Democrat matchups, as Mr. Altmire identified himself as a social conservative with pro-life and pro-gun stances. He drew distinctions with the incumbent over the Bush administration's approach to the war in Iraq, however, and played up his background as a former congressional aide who gained expertise on health care issues in the 1990s.

18th District

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, who also coasted to victory in his first two congressional elections, bucked the upheaval affecting some of his peers in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

He was never threatened in the race by underfunded Democratic challenger Chad Kluko, who was making his first bid for public office.

Despite a voting record supportive of the White House and GOP leadership in Congress, Mr. Murphy, 54, counted on voters recognizing him as a familiar face, concerned about community and constituent issues. The child psychologist also made a habit of besting Democrats easily in state Senate races in the South Hills before becoming a congressman the past four years.

"I ran this campaign like I run my office, continually focused on the local issues," Mr. Murphy said after being assured of comfortable victory. "How other people handle their campaigns -- I don't know how other people do it -- but I know we will be continuing to respond to local needs."

Mr. Kluko, 45, of Monroeville, was an unknown in politics who entered the race out of nowhere after more prominent Democrats declined to run. The district spanning southern Allegheny County and parts of Washington to the west and Westmoreland to the east has 70,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but their voting habits in recent elections have given little hint of that.

Mr. Kluko, who was a registered Republican when working in the broadcast and telecommunications fields in California for two decades, counted unsuccessfully on the district's Democrats returning to their political roots out of dissatisfaction with the nation's direction under the Bush administration.

The challenger had no money for prominent advertising -- he raised less than $100,000 overall while Mr. Murphy gathered more than $1.5 million -- but sought to appeal directly to voters on issues such as the war in Iraq and economic and health care concerns.

In both advertising and personal appearances, however, Mr. Murphy emphasized his own devotion to health care issues. He said he was willing to challenge the president and members of his own party to spur changes to make health care more affordable and available.

Mr. Murphy appeared to suffer no damage from negative media reports in recent weeks, based on present and former staff members accusing him of unethical practices in using government staff and resources for his campaign. Mr. Kluko declined to make those allegations an issue in the campaign.

12th District

U.S. Rep. John Murtha easily retained a seat he has held for 32 years, which was sought by Republican Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey. She conceded at 10:25 p.m.

Long known as an influential Democrat on defense issues, the 74-year-old Vietnam veteran from Cambria County made national headlines a year ago for attacking the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq. Mr. Murtha was among the first and most notable political leaders calling for a U.S. troop pullout, and withstood some attacks on his patriotism for it.

Mr. Murtha told supporters at his campaign headquarters it was a "very difficult campaign," but that voters sent their message to the president about his handling of the war in Iraq. It showed people "don't want a rubber-stamp Congress," the congressman said.

"What I worry about is who he'll try to blame," Mr. Murtha said of President Bush. "The policy set by the White House, they need an achievable strategy. Winning is not a strategy, winning is just a goal."

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Democrat Jason Altmire celebrates his victory over Melissa Hart last night.
Click photo for larger image.John Heller, Post-Gazette
U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart watches election returns with supporters at a reception party in Wexford last night.
Click photo for larger image.Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Incumbent U.S. Rep. John Murtha celebrates with supporters Tuesday night in Johnstown as election returns show him comfortably ahead of Republican challenger Diana Irey.
Click photo for larger image.Scott Beveridge, Observer-Reporter via AP
Republican Congressional candidate Diana Irey speaks with supporter Joe Balazs, of New Germany, at the Willow Room in Rostraver Township. She lost her bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. John Murtha.
Click photo for larger image.

Ms. Irey, 44, of Carroll Township, was supportive of the war in Iraq and suggested that Mr. Murtha had lost touch with the conservative views of his constituents. She hoped voters in the sprawling district that covers Allegheny, Armstrong, Cambria, Greene, Fayette, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties would recoil at Mr. Murtha's stance and make him one of a number of incumbents thrown out of Congress. Most of the anti-incumbent sentiment directed at Congress, however, focused on Republicans rather than Democrats.

Addressing about 200 supporters, Ms. Irey made no reference to the incumbent in her concession speech. Earlier in the night, she alluded to the war and U.S. troops in Iraq. "My motivation to beat Jack was largely to do right by them," she said.

Mr. Murtha raised more than $2.5 million for the race, about four times as much as his opponent, even though the district has about 150,000 more Democrats than Republicans. He also withstood old allegations resurrected in the campaign about his ancillary role in the Abscam congressional bribery scandal of more than a quarter-century ago.

14th District

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, without a Republican opponent, won election to a seventh term representing a district that includes Pittsburgh and 50 Allegheny County suburbs.

The 53-year-old incumbent's only challenger was Green Party candidate Titus North, 45, of Squirrel Hill, who conceded in advance he had no chance of winning.

Karen Kane, Milan Simonich, Caitlin Cleary, Lynda Guydon Taylor and Moustafa Ayad contributed. Gary Rotstein can be reached at or 412-263-1255.


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