WASHINGTON, Pa. -- Bill Steiner had a simple explanation for Tuesday night's result in Pennsylvania's 12th District.
"It's Murtha's ghost," said Steiner, about a half-hour after Republican Tim Burns had conceded to Democrat Mark Critz, former aide to the late Rep. John Murtha. "People were afraid to change."
Murtha died in February, three weeks after Republican Scott Brown had won the Massachusetts Senate seat held for more than four decades by Ted Kennedy, and the GOP clearly hoped to carry that momentum into the special election to fill the House seat that Murtha had held since the mid-1970s.
What happened and why? The answer supplied by Steiner, a conservative activist from Westmoreland County, was elegant in its simplicity, if not entirely sufficient to explain Critz's 12,000-vote margin of victory in an election that the Burns campaign had expected to win.
Clearly, Democrats did damage to Burns with a blizzard of TV and radio ads accusing the Republican of wanting to impose a 23-percent sales tax "on just about everything we buy" -- a blatant distortion of Burns' qualified support of the Fair Tax, a proposal that would eliminate the income tax and abolish the Internal Revenue Service. FactCheck.org called that accusation "misleading" and one Pittsburgh TV station pulled the Democrat ad from the air, but it continued running elsewhere -- even during commercial breaks on local broadcasts of Rush Limbaugh's radio show -- right up until Election Day.
The effectiveness of that line of attack against Burns, however, should raise alarm bells for Republicans looking forward to November. How many GOP congressional challengers have endorsed the Fair Tax? Whatever their numbers, all of them can now expect to be hit with the same kind of attack.
The same Democratic ads accused Burns of favoring tax cuts for companies that "ship jobs overseas" and, as nonsensical as the charge may seem -- whoever proposed any such policy? -- it evidently served its purpose of appealing to job-security fears among many blue-collar voters in this Rust Belt district.
This leads to what should be a profoundly disturbing thought for the Right: If Democrats can win elections by making these sorts of far-fetched class-warfare attacks against Republicans, have conservatives really won "the war of ideas"? Thirty years after Ronald Reagan's election and the supposed victory of the supply-side revolution in economics, could it be that a majority of the electorate are now hostile toward the free market?
More than anything else, the election of Critz demonstrates the enduring appeal of Murthanomics. As I defined the term three weeks ago, under Murthanomics, "the keys to prosperity are protectionism and pork-barrel federal spending," and Critz won mainly by presenting himself as the heir to his former boss's legacy. Polls showed that voters in PA-12 reacted negatively to the names of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi -- to whom Burns relentlessly strove to link Critz -- that did little to taint the Democrat who promised to preserve the Murtha legacy.
Several Republicans who lingered late Tuesday in the grand ballroom of the George Washington Hotel mentioned that Burns, in getting 44 percent of the vote, did better than any of the GOP candidates who had challenged Murtha. Yet that was cold consolation in a contest that Republicans had believed winnable on the eve of the election.
"Would you believe I didn't prepare a concession speech?" Burns told his disappointed supporters Tuesday night after the loss became apparent. "There are a lot of lessons to be learned here, and we will learn them. We will get better, and we will improve, and we will figure out what we need to do to take this country back -- I assure you of that."
Both Critz and Burns won their respective primary contests held contemporaneously with the special election, setting up a rematch in November. That provides Republicans nearly six months to analyze this Pennsylvania campaign -- and to fight the inevitable perception that the Tea Party momentum which helped elect Scott Brown in Massachusetts has now dissipated. Burns was having none of that Tuesday night.
"This isn't a loss -- this is a setback," he told the crowd in the hotel ballroom. "And I can tell you the folks I've worked with, who have supported this race, they will not give up -- and they will not give in."
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