John Murtha dies, special election looms
The death of longtime Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha (D) this afternoon will set off a special election in his very competitive western Pennsylvania 12th district.
According to state law, the governor has ten days once the vacancy is officially declared to decide on the date for the special election, which can come no sooner than 60 days following that proclamation.
That likely means the special election will be held on May 18, which is the date already set for federal primaries around the state. (Special elections costs the state huge sums of money and it's likely that Gov. Ed Rendell will choose to go with an already established election day to save some cash.)
Murtha's passing comes at a tenuous time for House Democrats as they seek to convince some of their older members to re-up for another term in the face of what looks to be a difficult national political environment for the party.
To date, 12 Democrats -- including long-serving Members like John Tanner and Bart Gordon (both of Tennessee) -- are calling it quits at the end of the year. Sixteen Republicans are retiring at the end of the 111th Congress although just four of them are leaving office entirely; the other dozen are running for higher offices like Senate or governor.
Murtha, 77, had held his seat with ease since 1974 even as it became increasingly more competitive between the two parties. The only semi-serious challenge to him in recent years came in a redistricting-forced primary race against then Rep. Frank Mascara in 2002, which Murtha won easily.
He had become a titan within the halls of Congress and a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). The Post's Paul Kane, a veteran Congressional reporter and Pennsylvania native, called Murtha an "old bull" and "something of a legend" who "endeared himself to many of his colleagues through a series of earmarks inserted into defense appropriations bills. Kane added that Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) is next in line to chair the defense appropriations committee.
Without Murtha in the 12th district, however, the special election will be seriously contested. Murtha's district is the only one in the country won by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 and by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, according to Republican sources, and that trend line coupled with the volatile national environment for Democrats ensures Republicans will heavily target the contest.
Prior to Murtha's passing, there were two Republicans in the race: 2008 nominee Bill Russell and businessman Tim Burns. It remains to be seen whether either or both men run in the special election although, regardless, it is a certainty the field will grow as ambitious Republicans (and Democrats) see the chance to get to Congress in an abbreviated campaign.
"This is not the time for political opportunism," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Jennifer Crider. "Out of respect for Congressman Murtha's family and his decades of service to our country, Republicans should put their partisanship aside and allow Mr. Murtha's family, friends, and constituents time to celebrate his life and mourn his passing."
The Pennsylvania special election is the second Democratic-held special election that will happen in the coming months. Rep. Neil Abercrombie's (D) resignation to focus full-time on his Hawaii gubernatorial campaign has created a vacancy in the Aloha State although no date has been set yet for the special election. Republicans believe that their candidate -- Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou -- could pull off an upset if state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa and former Rep. Ed Case split the Democratic vote in a jungle primary race where all the candidates will run together.
Murtha's death also makes Pennsylvania perhaps the most competitive state in the country when it comes to the battle for the House. Republicans will target the 4th, 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th and 12th districts while Democrats see opportunity in the 6th and 15th.
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