PA 12 Special: Only One Piece in Bigger Picture

by Stuart Rothenberg June 1, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

Less than a day after the polls closed in the May 18 Pennsylvania special election, I left the country.

But e-mails followed me everywhere, and I read with some surprise the post-election assessments of the meaning of Democrat Mark Critz’s substantial victory over Republican Tim Burns in the race to succeed the late Rep. John Murtha (D).

I understand that we live in an era when exaggeration is the norm, but characterizing the GOP loss in that special election as evidence that Republicans can’t win the House is about as misguided as the pre-election assessments that the special was a “must win” for Republicans.

Critz’s victory was very welcome news for Democrats and a good reminder that candidates, campaigns and district fundamentals matter. Conservative Democrats, at this point in the cycle, can still win in conservative Democratic districts, even if President Barack Obama isn’t popular.

But while the result certainly ought to be a dose of humility for Republicans who have talked nonsensically about gaining 50, 60 or even 70 seats in November, the result in Pennsylvania wasn’t a game-changer.

From the time Republicans won the House in 1994 to their loss in the 2006 elections, the GOP never held Murtha’s district. Since that district wasn’t a “must win” for them then, it can’t possibly be regarded as one now.

The argument about whether Pennsylvania’s 12th is a swing district or a Democratic district obviously is important. Not surprisingly, the answer is somewhere in between the two alternatives.

Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) carried the district very narrowly in 2008, and state Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) exceeded 50 percent of the vote there in his re-election that same year. Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) only squeezed by George W. Bush in the district in 2004, while then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter carried the district (without winning a majority) in 2004. In other words, Republicans can run very competitively in the district, even winning it.

But at other times, the district’s Democratic heritage shows. Democrat Al Gore defeated Bush in the district in 2000 by a solid 11 points (54 percent to 43 percent), and Bill Clinton carried it comfortably twice.

More recently, 2009 state Supreme Court nominee Joan Orie Melvin (R), a western Pennsylvania native who won her race by an unexpectedly comfortable 8 points statewide and carried Chester, Delaware and Bucks counties in the southeastern corner of the state, drew only 48.5 percent of the vote in the 12th.

This is a picture of a narrowly Democratic district that moves toward the GOP when Republicans can establish a clear ideological contrast. When they can’t — and they didn’t last week — they don’t win.

Of course, the much ballyhooed “mood for change” should have boosted GOP prospects in the special election and given voters an opportunity to send a message of dissatisfaction to the president. They didn’t do that.

Did Critz win because the state’s competitive Senate primary pulled Democratic voters to the polls, or did the Congressional contest drive turnout? Partisans on both sides are certain of the answer, but I’m not. I remain agnostic about the question.

Critz’s victory boosts the prospects of moderate Democrats running in swing districts, whether in Western Pennsylvania, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or nonurban Ohio.

But it doesn’t necessarily offer equally good news for Democratic Reps. Tom Perriello (Va.), Betsy Markey (Colo.), Steve Driehaus (Ohio), Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio), Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.) or others who have cast votes that are unpopular back home.

And Critz’s victory doesn’t say anything about Democrats running in Republican-leaning districts or about districts with large numbers of independent voters, who are more likely to vote on mood than anything else.

As regular readers of this column know, election cycles develop over time, not overnight. In both 2006 and 2008, to say nothing of 1994, a number of races broke late, as voters turned their attention to the elections. I expect the same thing to happen this year, and that could change the arithmetic of the midterms.

There are dozens of reasons why the political environment might improve, or deteriorate, for Democrats between now and November — ranging from an improving employment picture or Republican stupidity to growing financial troubles in the European Union, political fallout for the administration from the BP oil disaster or a double-dip economic slowdown.

Some of these developments would help boost Obama’s standing and give Democratic candidates a better chance to localize their contests, while others would undermine the administration’s standing and create an even bigger wave for political change that would overwhelm many Democrats who run strong re-election campaigns.

Much has been made by some of Republican special election victories in Oklahoma and Kentucky prior to the 1994 midterms and of the Democrats’ win in Pennsylvania last week. But, unlike the one in Pennsylvania’s 12th, both of those 1994 specials occurred in districts that George H.W. Bush won comfortably in 1992 and overwhelmingly (by 60 percent) in 1988. The comparisons, in short, don’t hold.

It’s understandable that we all look for deep meaning from a single event. But with Election Day more than five months away, the die for November is not yet cast, no matter the results in Pennsylvania’s 12th district.