- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Since President Obama was sworn in, the Republican Party has won surprise statewide victories in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts. But in a big year for the party, Republicans lost all five special House races, including two in ruby-red districts because House special-election candidates are not chosen by rank-and-file Republicans in a primary but rather by a handful of party insiders in a back room.

Consider the special election to replace Senate appointee Kirsten Gillibrand last spring in upstate New York’s 20th District. Behind closed doors, members of state and local Republican committees chose career politician Jim Tedisco, leader of the powerless Assembly minority, to be the party’s standard-bearer though he didn’t even live in the district. Mr. Tedisco lost to 38-year-old upstart Scott Murphy despite 70,000-more Republicans than Democrats in the district.

Republicans farther north in the Empire State’s 23rd District didn’t learn any lessons from the Tedisco disaster. Last fall, they nominated liberal Assembly Republican Dede Scozzafava and rejected Doug Hoffman even though he had far more support from actual Republican voters.

Republicans recoiled at Mrs. Scozzafava and backed Mr. Hoffman, who secured a third-party nomination from the state’s influential Conservative Party. Mrs. Scozzafava ultimately dropped out of the race and endorsed the Democrat, who narrowly defeated Mr. Hoffman. The Republican establishment’s self-inflicted wound handed the Democrats a seat that just 10 months earlier gave the Republican candidate 65 percent of the vote.

But these nightmare scenarios are nothing compared to what the Republican establishment did on March 11 in Pennsylvania’s 12th District special election to replace the late Jack Murtha.

Led by state Republican Chairman Rob Gleason, insiders rejected Bill Russell, even though the retired 82nd Airborne officer and Iraq War veteran had given Murtha a real fight as the Republican candidate in 2008, raising $3.6 million and earning 42 percent of the vote.

Mr. Russell’s campaign kept going at full speed after 2008, focused like a laser on 2010. An experienced districtwide organization and high name recognition give Mr. Russell, a survivor of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, a significant advantage in a special election just two months away.

So why, despite Mr. Russell’s military pedigree, strong financial and electoral showing in 2008 and ongoing campaign, do Republican hacks want to change horses when they are nearly across the stream? Because they found a guy named Tim Burns who is worth nine figures and willing to part with substantial portions of it to get the nomination.

The party line is that Mr. Burns is a better candidate than Mr. Russell because he can self-fund his campaign. But Mr. Burns’ money can’t possibly purchase an organization or name recognition comparable to Mr. Russell’s in the truncated special-election cycle.

The real reason establishment types like Mr. Gleason are falling all over themselves to support Mr. Burns is that under Pennsylvania’s lax campaign finance laws, individuals can contribute unlimited amounts to state and local elective officials. Mr. Burns can even donate to town, county and state Republican committees.

In short, Mr. Burns can give unlimited amounts of money to the very individuals and organizations who just gave him the nomination.

Remarkably, Mr. Gleason admitted in a recent Washington Independent article that he doesn’t care about winning the congressional seat when he chastised Mr. Russell for running too hard in 2008. Mr. Gleason whined, “I lost a state legislature race in 2008 because Russell was surging in the polls and Murtha turned out his forces to come out for the Democrats.”

On Thursday night, the Pennsylvania chapter of a party that prides itself on national security told Mr. Russell: You can put your neck on the line for us on foreign shores and we’ll tolerate you as our nominee in elections we don’t think we can win. But don’t dare get in our way when we are trying to conduct business as usual. For although you spent a career defending this republic instead of getting rich, this time around, qualified, working-class combat Veterans need not apply.

To Mr. Russell’s credit, the savvy paratrooper read the establishment’s hand, refused to be intimidated and already has earned enough signatures to run in the primary, which is scheduled for May 18, the same day as the special election.

A Zogby poll of likely Republican conducted Feb. 17 and 18 indicated that Mr. Russell leads Mr. Burns by an astounding 29 points. Because of the unique, dual-election dynamic, Republicans voters can elect Mr. Burns in the special election but also give Mr. Russell the nod to be the nominee for the November general election. Under this likely scenario, Mr. Burns would instantly become a lame duck and the Republican establishment would again be exposed as bumbling jackals.

D. Patrick Mahoney is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and president of Iraq Veterans For Congress PAC.

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