Campaign Crawlers

Special Time in Pennsylvania

Republican Tim Burns battles for Murtha's 12th District.

By 4.30.10

Tim Burns was all smiles Wednesday night in Johnstown, and not just because the Republican congressional candidate was enjoying chili dogs at his favorite hometown diner, Coney Island Lunch. An hour earlier, in a public forum at a local high school, his Democratic opponent seemed to admit what the Burns campaign had been saying for days, that attack ads slamming the GOP candidate's tax positions were a lie.

"So I want to take this opportunity, that if I've misstated Mr. Burns's position on something, that I apologize. I didn't mean to do that," said Mark Critz, a former aide to the late Rep. Jack Murtha, whose February death vacated the seat to be filled by a May 18 special election. "It was my understanding that [Burns] did support the Fair Tax, and if that's wrong, I apologize."

The inclusion of two "ifs" meant this wasn't exactly an apology, nor did it appear specifically to include the TV ads funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, warning that "Burns supports putting a 23-percent sales tax on just about everything we buy." called that a "quite misleading" attack, since it doesn't mention (a) that the so-called "Fair Tax" would abolish the IRS and repeal all federal income taxes, or (b) that Burns merely has said he would "ultimately" prefer such a policy while acknowledging "practical" problems with going "from where we are today to the Fair Tax."

Yet Critz's conditional apology was sufficient for a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman to issue a press release: "Now that Critz has apologized for lying, he should promise to stop any other smear tactics by either his campaign or Speaker Pelosi's Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee."

Such are the daily clashes that define the intense battle for Pennsylvania's 12th District -- now less than three weeks from an election that could put a Republican in the seat held for more than a three decades by Murtha, the 19-term Democrat who rose to become chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee before his Feb. 8 death. The potential parallels to Sen. Scott Brown's January special-election upset -- replacing the departed Ted Kennedy in heavily Democratic Massachusetts -- are obvious enough. But to quote another famous Massachusetts Democrat, all politics is local and Murtha was the master of a peculiarly local brand of Pennsylvania politics.

Murtha's ghost looms large over the 12th District, which sprawls in a bizarre gerrymander over a predominantly rural area stretching from the southwestern corner of the state up to Ebensburg in Cambria County, a three-hour drive away. The crab-like geographical outlines of the erstwhile dominion of Murthadom, however, are no more bizarre than the political landscape in a district where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 registration advantage -- John Kerry carried the 12th in 2004 -- but John McCain beat Barack Obama in 2008.

This is the part of Pennsylvania whose small-town residents Obama infamously described at a San Francisco fundraising event two years ago: "It's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Democrats seem to be banking on the "anti-trade sentiment," a genuine phenomenon in a Rust Belt region where the unemployment rate -- as high as 13.5 percent in Fayette County, and well above 10 percent in other 12th District counties -- would be even higher, were it not for the fact that for decades, ambitious young people have been moving away in search of better prospects elsewhere. The DCCC attack ads portray Burns's signature on a no-tax-increase pledge as favoring "tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas."

That kind of accusation is transparently intended to appeal to surviving adherents of the arcane ideology of Murthanomics, wherein the keys to prosperity are protectionism and pork-barrel federal spending. Republicans may laugh at Murthanomics as a misguided nostalgia for the days of Smoot-Hawley, but at least a third of the audience at Wednesday night's forum at Westmont Hilltop High applauded when Critz pledged to bring home the budget earmarks just like his late boss used to do. And even Burns -- a successful entrepreneur who surely knows better -- apparently felt compelled to make semi-protectionist "fair trade" noises about China "dumping" steel into the U.S. market.

Many Republicans learned to loathe Murtha when, in 2006, he accused Marines of killing Iraqi civilians "in cold blood," but the departed Democrat remains an object of bipartisan reverence in the 12th District. "My parents and grandparents are all Republicans, but they wouldn't hear a word against Murtha," one local GOP operative explained.

Fortunately for Burns, he is not campaigning against Murtha. The Republican is not really campaigning against Critz, either, except to portray him as the tool of a Washington political apparatus viewed with suspicion by bitter gun-clinging Pennsylvanians.

"Do you think Nancy Pelosi would be working so hard to get Mark Critz elected… if she thought for one minute that he was going to vote against her agenda?" Burns said in his final remarks Wednesday, which ended with a cheerful invitation. "I can't come to Johnstown without stopping at Coney Island for a hot dog, so that's where we're going after the debate -- maybe I'll see some of you there."

An hour later at the downtown diner, Burns and his staff seemed confident that they've seized the momentum in this neck-and-neck race. Top political oddsmaker Charlie Cook switched the 12th District from "toss-up" to "leans Republican," and Sarah Palin's Facebook endorsement on Monday unleashed a torrent of online donations that totaled more than $80,000 Wednesday afternoon and passed the $100,000 mark by mid-day Thursday, campaign sources said.

Some of that money got injected into the recession-plagued local economy as the Republican campaigners placed their orders at the stainless-steel counter. During coming weeks, much more out-of-town cash is likely to end up in the register at Coney Island Lunch -- "Best Hot Dogs and Hamburgers in U.S.A. Since 1916," as the sign outside proclaims. The national media will soon be pouring into the 12th District to cover the big election, and they won't want to miss the diner's specialty sandwich, a chili cheeseburger topped with a fried egg, known as the Sundowner.

"Don't knock it until you've tried it," Tim Burns said, an argument he may want to use with area voters who haven't elected a Republican to the House of Representatives since the 42-year-old candidate was in kindergarten.

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