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Rep. Murtha: GOP's New Target?

With Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) all over the news following his call for an immediate redeployment of American troops from Iraq last week, The Fix decided to look at whether Murtha has put himself in political jeopardy back home by playing such a high profile role in this most contentious of issues.

At his press conference last week (above), Rep. Murtha set off a political firestorm in Congress. (Reuters photo)

The short answer is no.

Murtha has represented the 12th district, which encompasses the extreme southwestern portion of the state, since 1974 when he won a special election.  He has faced little serious competition ever since; the few real races he has had have come against Democrats in primary battles.

In 1990, Murtha defeated attorney Kenneth Burkley by less than 5,000 votes in the Democratic primary -- a shocking result given that Murtha had become a major inside player within the Democratic-controlled House. 

Twelve years later Murtha found himself in another intraparty squabble as Republican redistricters (with Murtha's advice and consent) carved up southwestern Pennsylvania to create a suburban Pittsburgh seat -- the 18th district -- that leaned Republican.  Under the new lines, Rep. Frank Mascara (D) was drawn into the 18th but chose instead to challenge Murtha in the 12th where each member had previously represented roughly half of the district's population.  Murtha crushed Mascara 64 percent to 36 percent in the primary.

General elections have generally been a cakewalk for Murtha even though his district proved very competitive during the 2004 presidential election. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) won the district 51 percent to 49 percent over President Bush even as Murtha was winning reelection unopposed.

State and national Republicans admitted that prior to Murtha's speech last week they had no illusions about having a chance to win the seat until the congressman chooses to retire. But now they believe there is a glimmer of hope.

"The door to that district has always been closed tightly," said Josh Wilson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party. "After the position Congressman Murtha took last week, the door is cracked ever so slightly." Wilson said several potential GOP candidates have emerged since Murtha's speech last week.

A look at Murtha's House campaign account shows he is more than prepared should a real race develop. He ended September with $1.6 million in the bank.

Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, dismissed concerns about Murtha's electoral viability in the wake of his Iraq comments. "John Murtha has a long and solid record of delivering for his district and standing up for the families of Pennsylvania," she said.

This race isn't likely to be in play next year unless the GOP comes through with a very strong candidate, which they have failed to do for the past three decades against Murtha.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 21, 2005; 12:51 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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I am from Murtha's district. The only thing I have noticed from my other constituents, is the dislike of the mud/spin from the other side. While many may have earlier dismissed this election as "in the bag" for Murtha, (then his opponent may have actually had a chance) they now have found a reason to be involved and are no angry and supporting him even more. His opponent isn't getting much money, or is even actively campaigning anywhere that I have seen. It seems like the Reps. just had to run someone/anyone against him (for a change) since he came out so publicly. So, as for the mud, sling away. Keeping their mouths shut would have probably helped them. But just as in Iraq, sometimes attacking and bullying people results in them hating you and rallying for the other side (even if they were uninvolved before.) So, I guess I should thank them.

Posted by: chiccaD | August 11, 2006 6:17 PM | Report abuse

To put it politely, the political climate in Pennsylvania is more than a bit unsettled at the moment. Making predictions about the fall outcome may be a little pre-mature at this point.

In view of Mr. Murtha's many public statements and claims over the last few weeks(after the primaries in May), he just may have more of a challenge at home than many people might think.

In a portion of the state of Pennsylvania where people have ancestors and family members who've fought in every war from Phillip's War to Iraq, such words and public statements by Mr. Murtha over the last few weeks may not be well received. Think: Patriotic "Zell Miller" Democrats, or perhaps "Kennedy" or even "Reagan" Democrats.

Also keep in mind that over the last few years that Pennsylvanians have displayed a tendency to "throw the bastards out," whoever they are, Democrat or Republican.

That said, Mr. Murtha is a powerful incumbent in his district and will not be easy to unseat. The Democrats in the district are traditional voters, and many of them are, or at least were, union members. However, they also possess fierce independence and patriotism.

Another consideration is that Mrs. Diana Irey's campaign is currently garnering a growing nationwide grassroots support base. She may just give him a run for his money, and by doing so, even if she doesn't win, she positions herself as the front-runner for the next election or upon his retirement. (as Thune did with Daschle.)

No matter what happens this fall, politics in Pennsylvania will be very interesting to watch. The Lynn Swann Show aside, that is.

Posted by: Warren Bonesteel | June 17, 2006 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Hey Bob,

Full Disclosure: This is really the first blog I've participated actively in, or even read regularly. I'm therefore a bit new to proper etiquette on these things. I am a big Dean fan and a huge part of the reason is I'm one of the Democrats who believe that we should draw clear distinctions between us and Republicans rather than try to stake out centrist positions as the DNC Democrats do.

However, I think you may be engaging in a touch of excessive hyperbole with your use of the phrase "incessant stream of off-topic posts". First off, in these threads I tend to post once or twice to state my opinion and then I'm done. I'd have to double check but I think this is the first time I've posted more than twice in a thread.

Second, and far more important in my mind, is your statement that the posts themselves are off-topic. Discussing a possible agenda of someone who starts a discussion is a part of the overall debate because it helps determine how much "weight" to give to the arguments that person puts forward.

Why does the law require disclosure of who pays for a political advertisement on T.V.? Because knowing who paid for the ad helps determine how credible the ad is if you can point to a specific agenda that the sponsers are trying to advance. Considering the messenger while considering the message itself helps put the message into some context when forming an opinion on it.
And lastly, I actually DO believe that pointing out a bias, even if it is only percieved and not actual, has the potential to change things going forward. If Chris IS a partisan, political hack in disguise it might make him hesitate in being so blatant if he thinks he's getting a reputation for being one. If Chris ISN'T and it is just a combination of innocent mistakes and/or coincidence then he may try and be a bit more careful with his phrasing in the future. Why do you think people write "Letters to the Editor" of newspapers they read? Because those letters get read and considered. They may still end up in the waste basket eventually, but they DO get read.

Posted by: J. Crozier | November 22, 2005 11:02 AM | Report abuse

J. Crozier:

Full disclosure: Through the primary and for much of last year,
I was a mainstay on Howard Dean's blogforamerica. Prior to that,
from the fall of '02 on, I spent much time on the NYT Iraq forum.

This place is a liberal's paradise compared to either of them.
On the Dean blog, there were troll infestations that you would
have had to have seen to have believed (and a great deal of troll
paranoia that verged on reverse McCarthyism), and on the NYT
forum, there were a crew of truly evil-hearted war supporters
who engaged in argument ad hominem beyond the edge of libel.

So what's your point? That Chris Cillizza has political
biases? If so, who cares? This is a blog; more than half
the fun of posting is refuting ideas you disagree with.

If Cillizza were a heavy-handed moderator who deleted posts
with an obvious ideological bias -- then I could see making
a stink about it. But okay, so he's not a 100% The Nation-
Approved Politically Correct Liberal/Progressive Journalist.

You honestly think an incessant stream of
off-topic posts about it is going to change this?

I don't. I think it's more interesting to discuss the topic at hand.

But maybe that's just me ...


Posted by: rmck1 | November 22, 2005 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Rmck1 and db:

I wouldn't say that I was bashing Chris personally, rather I was pointing out a pattern that I at least had noticed during the time I've been reading his blog. I understand the desire to phrase things provocatively. It DOES make for more interesting reading and stir more intense debate, but it is only fair if the knife cuts both ways.

For example, a couple of weeks ago Senator Frist said he was more upset at someone leaking about the existence of CIA secret prisons in Eastern Europe than the fact they existed and suggesting he might have a Congressional investigation. (An obvious trial balloon seeing how that angle would play out, since dropped.) However that comment was pretty damn controversial, but I don't recall seeing any, "How is this going to play in Senator Frist's home district?" post.

Moreover, in general I've noticed a difference in both tone and lead-in to how Chris begins blogs on Democrats vs. Republicans. I'll highlight three Democrat ones and three Republican ones. Take a look at the difference in tone.

1. Dean Pops Off "Heeeee's back! After nine months of relative anonymity, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean gave an interview on "Hardball" last night in which he launched a few of the rhetorical rockets that he became infamous for during his unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign."

2. Closed Door Session: Red State Dems React "Did Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) parliamentary theatrics yesterday do harm to the handful of his colleagues running for reelection in red states in 2006?"

3. Rep. Murtha: GOP's New Target? "The Fix decided to look at whether Murtha has put himself in political jeopardy back home"

Now for the Republicans.

1. Tom DeLay a Boon to Both Democrats and GOP "Seeking to capitalize financially on the increased national visibility of former House majority leader Tom DeLay, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is joining forces with DeLay's likely Democratic opponent in Texas's 22nd District to raise money from national donors."

2. Leak Investigation: Danger for House Republicans? "As rumors fly in Washington regarding the potential indictment of high-ranking Bush administration officials for leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the media, The Fix offers a glimpse into what effect (if any) the constant media coverage of the probe is having on the reelection races of a handful of targeted House Republicans."

3. Bill Frist: The Reviews Are In "Several of The Fix's loyal Iowa sources were in attendance when Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist addressed the state Republican Party's annual Ronald Reagan Dinner over the weekend.

Reviews were somewhat mixed, suggesting that Frist's first major speech since allegations of insider trading may have slowed the momentum of his budding 2008 presidential campaign."

In the Democrat ones, the lead in is direct and phrased in a way to suggest that a mistake or a wrong has been done. With the Republican ones the tone is less leading/provocative and softer/more analytical.

Example A: Do Democrats cause cancer? The Fix examines the situation and concludes that the short answer is no.

Example B: Earlier today the RNC put out an attack ad in Senator Reid's home district suggesting a possible link between liberalism and cancer. The Fix examines how the ad might play with the voters.

A different way of phrasing things, but one is, in my mind, better.

Posted by: J. Crozier | November 22, 2005 1:46 AM | Report abuse

I agree, I wouldn't be bashing Chris...the messenger. Dont you think there were more than a few GOP'ers who ran around DC and Johnstown PA looking for skeletons in Murtha's closet. They couldnt find any but what they did find was universal respect for the man. This has GOPers scared sh??less. Last week was the turning point on the war in Iraq. Thanks to a few brave Dems who found their voices, and to a Bush Administration who thinks all Americans watch Fox News, and the tide has turned.

I am waiting for the next bombshell to drop and that is this: An independant commission that will investigate ALL of the the intelligence that was available to the White House, especially intellingence that was given to the secret the Iraqi Group headed by Cheyney. I believe when this is finally exposed, Americans will no 100% proof positive they were lied to by this administration. Why is it the GOP in the Senate and House does not want this investigation to occur? They know the truth and nearly 60% of Americans know the truth. This Bush Administration lied to the American people again and again.

Posted by: db | November 21, 2005 7:10 PM | Report abuse

J. Crozier:

I've only been posting and reading here about a week,
but I've seen a lot of Cillizza-bashing from my fellow
lefties and I just don't find it warranted at all.

This is not Fox News; it's a blog. Rhetorical questions don't just
hang in the air unaddressed, their unstated premises coloring the
commentary. What Cillizza is trying to do -- pretty obviously, seems
to me -- is to take a bit of news and tweak it with a provocative
question: "Could Murtha be in trouble in his district?" It was
entirely apparent in the Murtha stuff he posted that Murtha's pretty
safe -- but do you have a problem with throwing it up for discussion?

Seems to me that if he were trying to spin this for the GOP,
he'd only post negative stuff about Murtha in his district.


"Immediate pullout" is an acceptible shorthand for Murtha's
position, seems to me. 140,000 troops and an ocean of materiel
does nothing "immediately," so the "soonest available time"
kinda goes without saying. Murtha's point is that he wants
us to leave entirely on our terms, as soon as practicable,
with nothing contingent on the Iraqis. That's much further
than Levin's resolution went to merely hammer out a timetable.

What the MSM has been leaving out is the small below-the-horizon
force of Marines stationed in Kuwait to look out for any contingency
which developed in Iraq that might threaten America -- not that
Iraqis might need for their own security, which we cannot provide.


Posted by: rmck1 | November 21, 2005 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Thank you J. Crozier. I was going to write something very similar.

If Chris Cillizza wanted to show fairness and neutrality, he would have posed the following question: how will Mr. Murtha's consitutents react to his comments? Will they help him or hurt him?

However, either Mr. Cillizza has no interest in being fair, or he is fairly naive about the apparent bias on display.
When one asks whether a politician "puts himself in political jeopardy" that person is implying that the person referred to did something wrong.

If Cillizza wants to filter his posts through the RNC lens, you would think he would be less obvious about it.

Posted by: scootmandubious | November 21, 2005 5:52 PM | Report abuse

I feel like I am in the Twilight Zone - Murtha NEVER said that we must immediately redeploy the American troops from Iraq. What he said, which somehow MSM loves to ignore for their personal quest, is that troops need to be redeployed at the soonest possible time and that he never called for a complete redeployment, but one that would be staged and would have forces available to assist the Iragi's if and when?

I don't know why MSM can not report the facts intead of editing their news?

Posted by: Dave | November 21, 2005 5:16 PM | Report abuse

I've noticed a real pattern to your writings Chris. I can't remember the last time a Republican said something controversial and you ran a spot on your space that trumpeted, "Is (fill in the blank) in trouble in his home state for comment x?"

In the last couple of weeks you've run with this same angle no less than three times that I can remember. Reid, Dean and now Murtha. There is probably a couple of others.

Yes, you conclude that Murtha isn't in trouble, but the way you phrase the question implies that he's done something wrong and you're investigating if his home state is going to punish him for it. The pattern is the same. You raise an issue that asks, "Is Democrat X going to be punished back home?" By phrasing it like that you suggest that he or she SHOULD be punished.

It is the same strategy that Fox news follows.

Posted by: J. Crozier | November 21, 2005 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Politically, this is the mother of all no-brainers.

If the RCCC wants to be stupid enough to try to run somebody under a "Success in Iraq" banner against Murtha, they will be squashed like a fuzzy li'l skunk underneath the treads of an M1 Abrams tank.

The only thing that could un-bake that cake is a fundamental change for the better in Iraq.

Anyone willing to lay bets?


Posted by: rmck1 | November 21, 2005 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Slate magazine has called it the Murthquake ...

That speech will turn out to be the tipping
point on puhlic support for the Iraq war.

Republicans are absolutely terrified of this. As has been well
pointed out in this thread, they can't very well get away with
trying to demonize as lily-livered this shot-and-a-beer Democrat.
I disagree with Matt Yglesias; Murtha's creds as both Marine vet
and friend of the military are absolutely un-Swift Boat-able.

The "liberal elitist MoveOn" crap just will will not fly here.

I know it's been my own tipping point. Since the fall of '02 I've
been arguing against the war, but like Howard Dean I never joined my
fellow lefties in advocating a pullout. In fact, I made that point
several times here last week in the days before Murtha's speech.

I don't know what my position is ... it's in flux. What I do know
is that I haven't been able to counter any of Murtha's arguments.

Republicans also completely miss the point in trying to set Murtha's
admittedly ahead-of-the-curve position against his fellow Democrats.
The issue right now isn't whether Dems support an immediate pullout;
the issue is that at long last we can confront that purple elephant
in the corner and begin to talk fundamentally about our purpose there.

Make no mistake about something else; this guy isn't armchair. My
housemate (a prowar Dem) made the very perceptive point that Murtha's
most probably conveying the views of the military people he talks to,
and they are probably ground commanders in Iraq, mid-level in the
chain of command. They're in combat areas, not laptop jockeys in
the Green Zone. And -- as McCain has pointed out as well -- these
are absolutely the *last guys* to go mouthing off to the press,
or to tug on Rumsfeld's lapels for more troops and/or equipment.

But they sure as *hell* would talk to a guy like Murtha, and
expect him to make their concerns known to the American people.

Murtha's speaking for the rank-and-file in the military.
Politicians ignore this kind of sentiment at their peril.

This, I believe, is the reason for the universal dial-down
on Murtha himself from the administration and the GOP.


Posted by: rmck1 | November 21, 2005 4:49 PM | Report abuse

It is about time someone said what they believed with passion in the proper place to do so for the people they represent. He represents the living, not the dead in Iraq. I am sure he would like to keep it that way. His re-election process should be paved. His competition may have more of an excuse to run, but his strength and follow thru in leadership should come first and will show.

Posted by: Alisa Vickrey | November 21, 2005 4:02 PM | Report abuse

The ridiculous accusations of cowardice against Marta certainly show the Republican's absolute hatred of anyone who opposes their rule, no matter their history and service. Those who attacked him are taking the now emblematic "Bridge to Nowhere" that they insist on building with deficit dollars.

Posted by: Tom Hermon | November 21, 2005 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Murtha just made himself more popular among most Republicans, indeed most Americans. It would be very unwise for any candidate to attack Murtha based on his comments regarding Iraq.

Posted by: AAB | November 21, 2005 3:17 PM | Report abuse

I do not understand why Murtha should have any problems winning reelection but I do not know the district. He is taking a stand that the MAJORITY of Americans now hold. And this makes him Less like to win reelection????

Posted by: Mark Esposito | November 21, 2005 2:52 PM | Report abuse

GOPers, as usual, are listening to their base and mistakenly assuming it represents mainstream opinion.
Since PA was Democratic last time, and Bush's ratings have tumbled since, and opposition to the war has shot up meantime, it's very difficult to imagine the sums that add up to the Republicans deriving electoral advantage from his comments.
Right or wrong, Murtha oozes integrity. All attacks on this man will backfire, as Bush has clearly now recognised. Murtha is the reassuring daddy-figure that Americans have been looking for, and his message is one they've been waiting to hear.

Besides Cheney, there's hardly a politician in the country who is talking about heavy troop committments extending into 2007. Both parties effectively now have the same message, delivered in a different tone of voice.

Posted by: AJK | November 21, 2005 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Rather than discuss inside baseball, you might want to find out a) whether Murtha's constituents agree with his comments last week; b) what they think of the Iraq war more generally; or c) whether he's the kind of politician where his constituents respect him and his opinions regardless of whether they agree with him on a given point.

Remember, despite the Beltway wisdom, Paul Wellstone's polling in MN went _up_ against Coleman in 2002 after he announced his opposition to the war resolution, even though Minnesotans were generally in favor of it at the time. And Wellstone would have won that election.

Posted by: asdf | November 21, 2005 2:24 PM | Report abuse

I tend to agree with this from ABC's THE NOTE, but then I come from a Republican family where both Dad and Grandpa were veterans.

Politics of Iraq:
The Wall Street Journal's David Rogers Notes that last week's maneuvering in the House "upset many Republicans, and seems to have strengthened Mr. Murtha rather than isolate and embarrass him." Rogers writes that the biggest loser may be Cheney, "who has sought unsuccessfully to keep Congress out of the prisoner-detention debate by claiming it a presidential prerogative." Prior to the Thanksgiving recess, House Speaker Dennis Hastert blocked a vote and final negotiations on the shape of the $453 billion appropriations bill. But those "delaying tactics won't be feasible after lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving recess, because the defense bill must be enacted before Christmas." Rogers has one Senate Republican aide, who watched the House debate with "dismay," saying, "If the House Republicans want to make Jack Murtha the face of the Democratic Party, then Republicans will really be trounced next year."

Maybe all that explains the presidential dial-back. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Posted by: Liz | November 21, 2005 2:22 PM | Report abuse

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