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Why Pennsylvania's special election matters more

Tim Burns, the Republican, and Mark Critz, the Democrat, are running in a Pennsylvania special election later this month. AP photos by Keith Srakocic

Within four days later this month, voters in Hawaii and southwestern Pennsylvania -- two locales thousands of geographic miles apart and even further separated culturally -- will head to the polls to pick replacement Congressmen.

While the special elections in Pennsylvania's 12th district and Hawaii's 1st district -- set for May 18 and May 22, respectively -- are both important markers in the race for control of the House this fall, the Keystone State race to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D) matters more when it comes to analyzing the overall political environment.

Why? For three major reasons.

First, the Pennsylvania district is just the sort of culturally conservative area that House Democrats will have to defend in November in race across the country.

It was the only district that went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 election then flipped to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) four years later.

And, Republicans have featured both President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) in their ads in the 12th, a precursor to their November strategy in swing districts -- particularly if Burns wins.

Second, the issues on which the race is likely to be decided are entirely national in scope.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has attacked former congressional staffer Mark Critz (D) on Democrats' energy policy and the health care legislation in ads. In a commercial launched this morning, businessman Tim Burns (R) takes Critz to task for opposing the repeal of the "radical" health care bill that "drastically cuts seniors' Medicare...raises taxes...and even uses taxpayer money to pay for abortions".

Third, Pennsylvania goes before Hawaii and primacy matters in these sorts of things. A loss by Democrats in Pennsylvania would prime the pump for a series of "Are Democrats headed for disaster?" stories if Djou goes on to win for days later. If Democrats can win in Pennsylvania though, they are far more able to withstand a loss in Hawaii -- writing it off to local rather than national politics.

Compare that trio of Pennsylvania factors to the operating dynamic in Hawaii and an obvious contrast emerges.

While Hawaii is a far more Democratic district -- President Obama won with 70 percent there in 2008 -- a ballot quirk that puts former Rep. Ed Case (D), state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa (D) and Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou on the same May 22 ballot makes drawing national conclusions from the race more difficult.

The two Democratic candidates are drawing over 50 percent of the vote combined to the mid 30s for Djou. National Democrats have acknowledged privately that if Hanabusa and Case remain in the race they are likely to lose on May 22 but believe that a one-on-one fight in the fall will go their way. (That's another contrast worth noting between the two races. A Djou win would put him at the top of Democratic target lists while a Burns victory might mean Republicans keep the seat for the foreseeable future.)

Like any race, however, there are mitigating factors in each contest that make Pennsylvania something short of entirely national and Hawaii something short of entirely local.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats have a 60,000 voter registration edge over Republicans and the special will take place on the same day as the statewide primary where Democrats have very competitive races for Senate and governor while there are few (if any) competitive statewide GOP primaries.

In Hawaii, the split between liberals and labor who are for Hanabusa and the national party establishment who are, still somewhat quietly, for Case carries echoes of the split that tore apart the GOP in the New York 23rd district special election last year. (Most Democratic strategists dismiss the idea of a split within the party nationally, noting that the divide in Hawaii is far more about the state politics -- both U.S. Senators are for Hanabusa -- than about the state of the party.)

And, while the two Democrats vs one Republican dynamic is clearly the dominant one in Hawaii, there is considerable intensity in the GOP base (and even among independents) for Djou -- empirical evidence of an intensity gap that has played out in a series of national polls over the last few months. As one Republican strategist noted: "A Charles Djou victory would be a sign of increased GOP intensity. Two years ago, Republicans would have lost this seat."

Putting those caveats aside, it's clear that Pennsylvania's special election is the more true national referendum of the two May races. It's why spending by the two national parties is already over $1.1 million and nearly certain to grow considerably in the final 13 days of the race.

And, it's why every political eyeball in the country will be focused on southwestern Pennsylvania on May 18.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 5, 2010; 11:02 AM ET
Categories:  House  
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ceflynline, a while ago someone posted a link to this interesting map that reflected TEA Party activities, as gathered from the internt, across the country over the past year. The map blistered in growing circles to chart meetings and rallies -- so you could see party activity flare up here and there across the country. Pennsylvania never boiled. There was activity in MA and NY (secial elections), and down in VA (McDonnell), and over in OH and IN. But not in PA. It hasn't caught on here.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | May 5, 2010 9:57 PM | Report abuse

Pennsylvania is kinda wierd, only one or two identified Teapeople running against republicans, and one, according to Politics 1, in the 11th District running in the Democratic primary.

Meanwhile, Burns is of course also running in the Primary, so he could lose to Critz, even lose big time, and then get elected to get beat again in the3 fall.

Pennsylvania isn't really going to say very much about November no matter who wins, but the T's are so lacking in overt campaigners that their getting massacred won't be particularly visible except to real Political Junkies with sharp eyes, good computer skills, and a true geek's knowledge of Spreadsheet work.

Hawaii, on the other hand, will tell us that Hawaii is D, was D, and will be D, with a side order, if we are lucky, of a republican tee'd up in the stocks for the Dem to whomp on in the fall, and worser and worser, if he loses he is a big loser twicet in one year. Guess what HIS political future is.

Posted by: ceflynline | May 5, 2010 7:29 PM | Report abuse

But Hawaii is just as important because they love incumbents and Djou may be hard to dislodge. No incumbent has ever lost a race for Senate/House or governor in Hawaii since statehood. Now, if Djou gets in, he may try for the Senate in two years but if he stays, he could win.

Posted by: gomer0 | May 5, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

Obama and the democrats were putting out feelers that they would be "happy" if the bomb in Times Square was planted by the Tea Party people - instead of Middle Easterners.

This tells it all about Obama and the democrats.

Is this unbelievable ?? WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE IN THE COUNTRY ????


OBAMA has become a national disgrace.


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse


I don't hate Obama, I like him.

It's the policies.

If Obama cut the budget - and didn't raise the taxes - I would like him even more.


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Geez 37th, that plan indicates that the facility manager is supposed to have a plan and take control of the situation, reporting to the EPA. Coast Guard is supposed to support and report, which they have been doing. Here's EPA's web site so you can become an expert and report back:

Not everything that happens everywhere comes back to Obama. But you go ahead and blame the guy you hate.
It's more convenient for you than directing your anger at BP.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | May 5, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Ultimately, yes, I think that PA is a better national bellwether than Hawaii, which is more of a quirk, but even talking one PA district as a signal for what is to come is a bit of a stretch. All politics are local, and the personalities of the specific candidates matter. The entire nation could be rushing one direction or another, but if the right candidate runs the right campaign, none of what is happening nationally will matter. National politics do sway when the local candidates can't overcome them, but whether PA turns out to be one or the other is a bit hard to tell.

The real question for Democrats is whether or not they can find enough of the right candidates and right campaigns. Those are rare commodities, more so in tough political environments, and Democrats are going to need a lot of them to hold on in November.

Posted by: blert | May 5, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse


Now, now - you aren't being very nice, are you???

There was a Federal Management Plan - pre-appoved - which for some reason Obama did not put into motion "from day one."

I don't understand it - why did Obama drag his feet in responding to the oil spill ????

Given all Obama's criticism of Bush over New Orleans, you would think that Obama would act faster than Bush - not slower.

Your name-calling will not help your case.


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

37th, when you show us your degree in oil field management or HAZMAT containment, or Oceanology, or mechanical engindeering I will consider your opinion on the Gulf oil spill.

In the


your opinion is worth squat

no matter how


you post it


The same goes for your worthless opinions about Cliamte change


I will


that you have a great deal of on-the-job experience in





Posted by: margaretmeyers | May 5, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse


The oil should have been burned "from day one" -

Instead Obama did Nothing "from day one"

despite what their talking points are.


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse


The oil should have been burned "from day one" -

Instead Obama did Nothing "from day one"

despite what their talking points are.


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

37th and Scrivner -- Careful guys, we're getting into conspiracy theory over drive! Gov Perry has suggested that the Gulf oil spill could be the hand of God.

Me? I'm seeing Newt Gingrich behind everything from the stock market crash to Crist going Independent. Undie Bomber's super-strong elastic waist band: how come that didn't get burned up, hunh? Newt has the motive and he has the opportunity.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | May 5, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

No one has anything against hispanics. However, everyone has to follow the law.

Why is it that the democrats want to allow the hispanics to BREAK THE LAW AND GET AWAY WITH IT???

The democrats should be in favor of the enforcement of the laws.


Do you want open borders?

It is that simple - if you don't enforce the law, you have OPEN BORDERS.


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse


the "path" to citizenship that everyone favors is the illegal aliens go back their home country - and wait their turn in line like everyone else.

I am beginning to wonder - someone focus groups a bunch of words - then puts those words through a poll - no wonder the poll turns out the way you want it.

Ask the same people - DO YOU FAVOR AMNESTY FOR ILLEGAL ALIENS ??? The everyone says NO

but keep going with the deceptions.....


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse


When did Obama and the democrats ever support legislation that was favored in the polls ??? It appears that they prefer to push unpopular legislation.


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

To 37th & O @ 12:37 p.m.:

Watch it. You job is to blog-spam -- not to reveal possible untold truths that elude an easily duped mainstream media!

How about those "T-shirt vendor" heroes? Just a little too perfect, straight out of central casting, duhyathink? Like maybe some of them have been working undercover in Times Square for a year or two or three, or since 9/11?

And that alarm clock -- I saw a similar one at "Dollar Deal." It was priced at about a buck and a half, as I recall. Talk about a precision timing instrument...

Well, it's just a theory... same one I had at the time of the underpants bomber...

Can you say, kabuki theater?

Oops, gotta go, some guys in black suits and interesting lapel pins are knocking at the door! (I am joking -- at least, for now...)



Vic Livingston is on Facebook -- when he's not being censored by a warrantless surveillance and censorship regime.

Posted by: scrivener50 | May 5, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

the survey found that Republicans hold an edge in enthusiasm, with 64 percent of Republicans telling pollsters they are absolutely certain to vote in the 2010 congressional midterm elections, versus 59 percent of independents and 58 percent of Democrats.

Read more:
Somehow, I had expected a wider enthusiasm gap.

Posted by: 12BarBlues | May 5, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

"Nancy gets on her broom and flies away "

Is NOT sexist


Funny how you never say a word about the sexual slurs against the Tea Party Movement - but this phrase is out of bounds.


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Another area where the poll found independents more aligned with Democrats than Republicans was climate change, with 53 percent of independents believing that climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity. On the other hand, 49 percent of Republican respondents said they did not believe climate change is happening.

“When Republicans talk about climate change, the data pretty clearly indicates that a message that says ‘it’s not real, it’s not happening, humans aren’t causing it’ is a losing message,” said Ponnuru. “Now, that’s a message that has a lot of resonance, as the survey shows, among Republican voters, but it’s an issue where independents and Democrats are on the other side.”

Read more:

Posted by: 12BarBlues | May 5, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Republicans face a similarly tricky task on immigration, which recently reemerged as a lightening rod issue after Arizona passed a strict state law intended to identify and punish illegal immigrants. The poll found that 54 percent of all respondents (and the same percentage of independent) favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have no criminal background and meet guidelines including registration, paying a fine and English proficiency. Among Republican respondents, though, 58 percent opposed such a path to citizenship.

Read more:

Posted by: 12BarBlues | May 5, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Now, a GOP polling organization has highlighted four issues where conservatives views are significantly different than moderates. This creates a messaging dilemma for the GOP. Please the base and no one else? Attract moderates and lose the base?

The first issue is Repeal and Replace Healthcare Reform Law.

"the Resurgent Republic poll of 1,000 likely voters found that only 35 percent of respondents agreed with the approach of the GOP members of Congress who sounded the call to “repeal and replace” the health care reform legislation passed in March. Among respondents who identified themselves as Republicans, however, support for a repeal-and-replace strategy was 67 percent, compared to 36 percent among independent respondents.

Read more:

BTW, who is the Resurgent Republic?

"Ed Gillespie, the former GOP chairman and counselor to President George W. Bush, and top pollster Whit Ayres on Tuesday are launching Resurgent Republic, a group aimed at shaping the debate as the party regenerates itself for the upcoming elections."

Posted by: 12BarBlues | May 5, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

ken stop your sexists postings. we read your exact same type of sexist comment during the 2008 D POTUS primary. If you can't help yourself from making sexist comments about YOUR SPEAKER I suggest you find another place to post.

Posted by: leichtman1 | May 5, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Margaret writes:

The 12th CD is loaded with people who are already happily enjoying health insurance monitored by the Federal Government -- they don't see anything "radical" about their medicare, medicaid, s-chip and the FEHBP.


I find this attitude all over the democratic party - it is like a drug dealer trying to get people hooked on crack.

The democrats seem to be saying: Get them hooked on government programs, then they will want more, and they will let the democrats do whatever they want.

OUCH - this philosophy is a recipe for disaster - however the logic does not necessarily follow.

But this appears to be the internal logic at work in the democratic party - increased federal programs will get more voters, which will get more federal programs and MORE AND MORE AND MORE.

The problem is who is going to pay ????

There is a limit -

And at some point, this begins to choke off economic growth


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Burns is just another mediocre retrograde reyclced R with regurgitated 'ideas' which consist mainly of fighting regulation on polluting industries.

We see how well that worked out in Louisiana.

Posted by: drindl | May 5, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

There is something seriously wrong with Obama and the administration - when they are constantly floating ideas like "lone wolf" and "maybe this bomb is from the tea party - someone who doesn't like health care."

This is ridiculous.


One has to wonder.

You have Obama OBSESSED with a threat from the tea party - which DOES NOT EXIST - and the Obama CONSTANTLY DOWNPLAYS the threats from the Middle East - which are real and which ARE SHOWING UP ON OUR SHORES.




Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Mail-in-only! This ou[gh]t to be real fun. I don't know how you can predict how something like that will effect turn-out. I would be willing to be[t] that this will end up being a really strange outcome.

Posted by: AndyR3 |
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Maybe that explains why Oregon has gotten so blue over the past several years of mail-in only elections. Mail-in is good for Democrats, who knew?

It is good for turnout in general.
Based on this experience, I heard some members of Oregon's congressional delegation are planning to introduce a bill in Congress to make national elections mail-in only.

Posted by: shrink2 | May 5, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

From Tim Burns' web site:

"stop the EPA from killing coal jobs through over regulation."

Now would be a bad time to make this argument.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | May 5, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Besides, Burns' agenda is so lame. Look at his website. He proposes nothing, just the usual God, guns, better transit and lower taxes. PA 12 has already got plenty of God. PA 12 is bristling with guns and no one has made an issue of taking them away. PA 12 already has Pennsylvania's nicest highways outside of Shuster's CD. Lower taxes for who? Oh, and he wants to go back to coal, cause that would solve all our problems. No one is buying that.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | May 5, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

It will be interesting to look at how the Obey race is going to affect the Senate race - Feingold is going to lose a key part of the GOTV operation.

However energized the democrats are in that one district, the Republicans will be relatively more energized by the lack of the incumbent.

I like Leinenkugel - he has high name recognition in the state - which I have a feeling that many are underestimating.


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Margaret writes:

The 12th CD is loaded with people who are already happily enjoying health insurance monitored by the Federal Government -- they don't see anything "radical" about their medicare, medicaid, s-chip and the FEHBP.


Yea, but does it necessarily follow that those people believe that the government-run health care should be EXPANDED?

Do those people believe in HIGHER TAXES ?

Do those people believe in bigger government ??

It is like Obama saying the government built a highway in the 1950s - so that JUSTIFIES taking over health care.

The logic makes no sense.


Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

That NRCC advertisement against Critz is full of the usual pathetic lies that the GOP has been trotting out against HCR all along.

The 12th CD is loaded with people who are already happily enjoying health insurance monitored by the Federal Government -- they don't see anything "radical" about their medicare, medicaid, s-chip and the FEHBP. And many other people there make a living off providing services to people who are on them.

PA 12 CD is the real companion to NY 23CD: both are rural, dotted by land preserves and recreational areas alternating with small cities like Johnstown. The PA 12 and NY23 rely on federal money and initiatives to hold things together economically. PA 12 was lucky to have Murtha.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | May 5, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse


This is not technical stuff.

I mean - he NEVER SAW A MOVIE ??? What is he doing getting on a plane with his real name ???

Is there something WRONG HERE??

IS there something we are not being told here - they have not brought this guy in front of a judge - what is going on ???

How can this terrorist be so stupid???



Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

The latest news is that Obey is out. Step by step, day by day, we get a little closer to the day that Nancy gets on her broom and flies away never to darken our doorsteps again.

Posted by: kenpasadena | May 5, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

...or not.

Posted by: drindl | May 5, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

The Pennsylvania race is more important than the Hawaii race - all politics has important local issues - and whether the voters like the candidates matter.

Pennsylvania exit polls could probably be analyzed to see how the electorate has shifted under Obama.

Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Nice analysis, Chris. It's next to impossible to draw any meaning from Hawaii since if a Dem wins, well, it's a very Dem district. If a R wins, it's a ballot quirk.

With PA, whichever party wins, can boast about something bigger. If a Dem wins, it's a district that went to McCain and this so called resurgence to the right has yet to manifest itself in a special election besides the MA one. If a R wins, it's a flip from blue to red. And while McCain won, it was pretty close, so a decisive victory will lend credence to the thought that Dems are in for a tough time.

Off topic, but it's a politico article on the expansion of the WaPo into the blog world. The premise is bordering idiotic, but there is some interesting stuff in there.

Posted by: DDAWD | May 5, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Mail-in-only! This out to be real fun. I don't know how you can predict how something like that will effect turn-out. I would be willing to be that this will end up being a really strange outcome.

Posted by: AndyR3 | May 5, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, Bondosan. As you point out, Hawaii is a whole separate case that has no bearing on November, much as the pundits want to believe otherwise.

Andy, I don't think they've got anything else. I mean, what has any of them said recently that's *positive*-- that's an actual idea or platform? They haven't got one -- all they have is 'NO.'

Posted by: drindl | May 5, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Obama and his people really can not take any credit for their performance in this latest terrorist incident

1) The terrorist was in Pakistan for 5 months - in a terrorist training camp - and came back here to the US - yet it appears that no one was watching him at all

2) The reason the attack failed was because the bomb was not constructed correctly - not because of anything anyone did

3) If the terrorist had gone to the airport directly that night - or on Sunday, he probably would have gotten away

4) Apparently earlier Monday, the FBI had the terrorist under watch - but somehow the terrorist got away ? Unbelievable.

5) THEN after the terrorist gets AWAY from the FBI, he boards a plane under his real name - if he had any fake ID or other passport under a different name, they would have NEVER caught him

Obama and the government can not say that they really deserve ANY credit here - quite the contrary - the government failed at many levels.

Anyway ...

I still hold my position that Obama has SIGNIFICANTLY WEAKENED the counter-terrorism procedures - and we have now seen an uptick in terrorist incidents here in the United States.



Posted by: 37thand0street | May 5, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

It's quite absurd to suggest that the Hawaii special has any national implications at all.

Ed Case is strongly disliked by the party establishment in Hawaii because he had the temerity to challenge one of their sitting US senators in a primary.

Right now, the two Democrats would prefer Djou to win rather than their Democratic opponent because it would preserve their chance of winning a Democratic primary later in the year, and an opportunity to face Djou again in November.

My final point, which I'm surprised Chris hasn't mentioned, is that the Hawaii special is an all-mail-in-ballot, which is going on right now. May 22nd is the date the votes are counted.

Here's a bit more perspective from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin:

Posted by: Bondosan | May 5, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I also wonder that if Burns loses in Penn if the GOP will realize that you should hit on the HCR bill once and then move on. Most american's frankly don't care, plus they don't think it is 'radical' to begin with. The GOP needs to remember that ~17% of the 55% of Americans who didn't support HCR thought that it didn't go far enough.

Posted by: AndyR3 | May 5, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

There is also the point that the Pennsylvania race will be reported at 7 oclock on the east coast and on the evening news out west, where as the Hawaii race will be on the morning news. Most americans may not care who wins these elections, but they will hear about the Penn race in larger numbers.

Posted by: AndyR3 | May 5, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse




Posted by: drindl | May 5, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

"businessman Tim Burns (R) takes Critz to task for opposing the repeal of the "radical" health care bill that "drastically cuts seniors' Medicare...raises taxes...and even uses taxpayer money to pay for abortions"."


Perhaps you'd like to mention that this an astonishingly evil, outstanding whopper of a lie, even for a Repulican.


Posted by: drindl | May 5, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

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