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Allies rush cash to debilitated Murtha

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

After calling some residents in his western Pennsylvania district "racist" and "rednecks," Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha seemed in jeopardy of losing his job last month - until his political friends in Congress and the defense industry came to the rescue.

Soon after Mr. Murtha's poll numbers began slipping, money started pouring into his campaign coffers from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, now the incoming White House chief of staff, and dozens of other prominent Democrats. Mr. Murtha raised more than $1 million in the two weeks leading up to his successful Nov. 4 re-election, a surprising figure even for a longtime House veteran, according to campaign finance analysts.

The last-minute cash infusion, which also included money from defense contractors and lobbyists, helped the House Appropriations defense subcommittee chairman win about 58 percent of the vote to fend off his Republican challenger, retired Army Lt. Col. William Russell.

It also showed how quickly powerful members of Congress can raise huge sums of campaign cash when their "safe" seats suddenly look vulnerable.

For Mr. Murtha, that moment came last month in response to a question on the campaign trail about Barack Obama's chances of winning Pennsylvania in the presidential race. Mr. Murtha said parts of the western half of the state were "racist," and he later tried to apologize by saying the region was once "really redneck."

After an uproar about the comments, polls showed Mr. Murtha losing ground in his race for an 18th term. But within days of his misstep, his campaign was flush with cash.

From Oct. 28 to Oct. 30 alone, the Murtha campaign reported raising roughly a quarter-million dollars. That was nearly half of all the money it managed to raise during a three-month span from July through October, Federal Election Commission filings show.

Tens of thousands of dollars came from employees at defense contractors and the PMA Group, a lobbying firm founded by a former staffer on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

Watchdog groups attribute Mr. Murtha's ability to raise lots of cash so quickly to his powerful post in Congress overseeing defense spending.

"Not only do a lot of these donors owe Representative Murtha a lot, if he stays in office then he can keep their gravy train running," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.

David Williams, vice president at Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste, said that raising more than $1 million in two weeks is "a huge amount for a congressional seat."

Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey dismissed the criticism.

"Jack Murtha is a national leader and a tremendous asset to Pennsylvania," he said. "We appreciate the support of thousands of people across our district and throughout the country who volunteered their time and contributed money toward our campaign."

On the campaign trail, Mr. Murtha chafed at Republican critics who portrayed him as a big pork-barrel spender, saying his earmarks brought millions of dollars and thousands of jobs to western Pennsylvania over the years.

Pete Sepp, vice president of the nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union, said it's no surprise that employees of defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, gave Mr. Murtha tens of thousands of dollars in the waning days of his campaign.

"Businesses are notorious for wanting stability in members of Congress," Mr. Sepp said. "Why break in a new member of Congress when you know the old one so well?"

The money to keep Mr. Murtha's seat safe came from dozens of Washington politicians, political action committees, the liberal group MoveOn.org and employees of numerous defense contractors.

Mr. Murtha's Republican challenger also relied heavily on outside money to build a campaign chest of more than $2 million, according to FEC records.

"You've got to raise as much as you can; otherwise, you'll just get buried," said Russell campaign spokesman Steve Clark.

Politicians gave to Mr. Murtha in several ways. Some wrote personal checks. Others dipped into their own congressional campaign funds. Several gave through special leadership PACs that they use to raise money for the campaigns of party leaders and colleagues.

Mr. Emanuel gave to Mr. Murtha through his own campaign fund and separately from his leadership committee.

Other Democratic politicians who opened their checkbooks for Mr. Murtha in the final days of the campaign included Mrs. Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas.

PACs for a host of special interests, including beer wholesalers, the coal mining industry and government workers, also contributed to Mr. Murtha. The PMA Group's PAC gave $5,000, while PMA employees gave more than $10,000 in personal donations.

According to data compiled by Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, PMA and 10 of its clients have given Mr. Murtha hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions since 2002.

Mr. Murtha is hardly the only member of Congress to benefit from out-of-state campaign contributions.

More than 90 members of the House, Democrats and Republicans alike, have raised at least 90 percent of their campaign money from outside their own legislative districts, according to a recent report by Maplight.org, a nonpartisan group that tracks how political contributions influence government policy.

"Congressman Murtha is just an example of the river of money that drives Congress," said Dan Newman, MapLight.org's executive director.