Debbie Lee came all the way from Arizona to campaign for Tim Burns. She was “deployed” to western Pennsylvania on behalf of Moving America Forward, a pro-military organization “committed to supporting America’s efforts to defeat terrorism,” and she brought with her a $5,000 check for the Burns campaign from the group’s political action committee.
Lee is a “Gold Star Mother” whose son, a Navy SEAL, was killed in a 2006 firefight in Iraq. She praised Burns as “a candidate who understands and will uphold the Constitution and who recognizes the sacrifices our troops make.”
In the battle for Pennsylvania’s 12th District, Lee is one member of a veritable of army of volunteers fighting to elect a Republican to the seat held for more than three decades by the late Democrat John Murtha. For weeks, volunteers have stuffed envelopes, manned phone banks and walked precincts, and today they’ll make the final push to get their voters to the polls in a special election that many observers are calling a crucial test of whether the GOP can win back the House of Representatives in November.
On the eve of this key election, only one man was willing to predict the final result. “I can assure you, we’re going to have a victory tomorrow,” Burns said in an interview on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program Monday night.
There have been only four public polls in the campaign, three of which showed narrow leads for the Republican candidate. The final poll showed Burns ahead by only a single percentage point, meaning that no GOP votes can be taken for granted. While there are encouraging signs for Republicans — 63 percent of 12th District voters have a negative opinion of Nancy Pelosi and 55 percent disapprove of President Obama — a victory for Burns would still be a major upset, given that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in the district.
Beyond strictly local disadvantages for the GOP, there’s also the woe-struck record of the National Republican Campaign Committee, which in the past two years lost 10 consecutive House special elections. That streak technically ended last week in Georgia’s 9th District, although a runoff will be required to determine which of two GOP candidates will fill the seat vacated by the resignation of Republican Rep. Nathan Deal. Electing a Republican in Murtha’s old district is a far more formidable task and Monday it seemed as if the NRCC was being taunted by its counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DCCC put out a press release emphasizing PA-12 as a “must-win” for the GOP.
The Democratic press release quoted such sources as veteran election analyst Charlie Cook — “Republicans have no excuse to lose this race” — and the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza, who said Republicans “have to prove they can emerge victorious in seats like this one…to make a reasonable case that the majority is in play this fall.” Perhaps the DCCC was playing the expectations game to deflect attention from the upcoming special election in Hawaii, where the presence of two Democrats on the ballot all but guarantees a win for Republican Charles Djou. However, that press release may also have been a signal of Democratic confidence that they can win a close contest on what is, after all, their home turf.
Such confidence could scarcely be inspired by the Democratic candidate, former Murtha staffer Mark Critz, a bland bureaucrat who has tried to portray himself as a moderate. In March, when the Democrats’ health-care bill was pending in Congress, Critz refused to say whether he was for or against it. Once the bill passed, Critz said he opposed it, but wouldn’t vote to repeal it. That kind of have-it-both-ways centrism may explain a general lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters in the 12th District — the most recent poll showing Burns with a 22-point advantage among voters who described themselves as “excited” about the election.
Excitement among Republican voters is obviously good news for Burns, but it may not be enough to overcome heavier turnout among Democrats drawn to Tuesday’s Senate primary showdown between party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak. How many registered Democrats in PA-12 will cast their votes for either of those Senate candidates and then vote for the GOP candidate in the House special election? The answer to that question could be critical for Burns’ chances of victory, and there’s another question that is perhaps even more troubling: What about Bill Russell?
A retired Marine officer, Russell moved to Pennsylvania with the specific purpose of challenging Murtha in the 2008 election after the Democrat had accused Marines in Iraq of killing civilians in cold blood. Russell lost by 15 points, but was aiming for a rematch this year until Murtha’s death in February ended that possibility. When Republicans gathered in March to choose their candidate for the special election, they picked Burns, a successful businessman who had entered the GOP primary last year after becoming active in the Tea Party movement. Yet Russell hasn’t ended his campaign for the Republican primary nomination, which will be listed separately on the Tuesday ballot. More to the point, Russell has refused to endorse Burns in the special election and Russell’s campaign staffers have called Burns an “opportunist.”
The Burns campaign has sought to avoid official comment on the potential problems posed by Russell’s continued candidacy. Some Republicans in the district, however, privately worry that if Russell’s embittered supporters refuse to vote for Burns in the special election, the loss of a few hundred GOP votes might provide the winning margin for Critz. And while Burns is almost certain to win the Republican primary nomination, he would face an even greater challenge if November brings a rematch with an incumbent Critz.
Such calculations become moot if Burns beats Critz today, and in the final days leading up to the election, the Burns campaign has repeated the slogan “Vote Twice for Tim on Tuesday” to remind Republicans to pick him in both the special election and the primary. And legions of conservative activists from around the country have descended on the 12th District to help spread that message.
“Our volunteers are out in force, in the rain, knocking on doors for Tim,” Burns outreach coordinator Angela Lash said Monday afternoon.
It is that army of volunteers whose tireless efforts will determine whether Republicans celebrate a victory in Pennsylvania tonight.