- The Washington Times - Friday, February 12, 2010

Democrats are eager to keep their special-election victory streak alive when the fight unfolds for the House seat Rep. John P. Murtha held with aplomb until his sudden death Monday.

The party has won five consecutive contests for House seats across the country and holds a fundraising advantage against Republicans. It also has the advantage of defending a seat in a western Pennsylvania district that has benefited for decades from Mr. Murtha’s legacy of federal largesse.

“We will obviously work hard to hold that seat,”said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

Republicans had targeted Mr. Murtha, but they’re downplaying expectations they can win the seat even as major political analysts consider it a tossup.

“It’s far too early to say one way or another who would be competitive and who would win and who would lose until we see who the challengers are who would be in the race,” said Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, National Republican Campaign Committee chairman.

Mr. Murtha, the Democrats’ top link to the Pentagon, died unexpectedly on Monday after complications from gall-bladder surgery. The 77-year-old former Marine held the seat since 1974 and was the longest-serving congressman in state history - a mark he reached just last weekend. As the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense, Mr. Murtha was the gatekeeper for an outsized chunk of the entire federal budget.

The special election to replace Mr. Murtha in the 12th Congressional District has not yet been set - Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell has suggested it could be held May 18 along with the state’s primary election. Both Republicans and Democrats say it’s likely to be competitive.

Several Democrats have been rumored to be interested in the seat, but none have officially declared that they would pursue it. Former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel and state Sen. John Wozniak are both said to be considering it and have strong name recognition in the district.

But because of the short campaign time and the fact that there won’t be a primary - the state parties will select candidates - both parties are expecting many more people to jump into the fray.

“We certainly are running to win,” said Pennsylvania Republican party spokesman Michael Barley. “But it’s going to be a difficult election for us.”

Two Republicans who entered the race before Mr. Murtha’s death had already attracted a following. The district had been trending against Democrats in recent years. It was the only one in the country that supported Democratic Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election then flipped to Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008.

In the 2008 election, Republican Iraq war veteran William Russell got 42 percent of the vote against Mr. Murtha’s 58 percent. It was the smallest percentage Mr. Murtha received in a House election. Republican Tim Burns, a businessman, is also in the race.

The Cook Political Report moved the district from “likely Democratic” to a “tossup” in the wake of Mr. Murtha’s death. The Rothenberg Political Report moved the district into its list of competitive races.

Sen. Scott Brown’s unexpected win in a Massachusetts’ special election showed that Republicans could race to the polls if they smell a possible victory. The high-profile Senate primary between Sen. Arlen Specter, a long-time Republican who switched parties last year, and Rep. Joe Sestak is likely to drive turnout, if the elections are held on the same day.

Despite high-profile victories by Mr. Brown and Republican gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey, Democrats have dominated in the special House contests, even flipping New York’s 23rd Congressional District - an area the GOP had controlled for more than 100 years - as the fledgling conservative “tea party” movement derailed the moderate Republican backed by the national party.

Since March of 2009, Democrats have won in a separate race in New York, one in Illinois and two in California.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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