In the district long held by the now-deceased Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Republicans were hoping for a better showing in November after an embarrassing loss in a closely watched special election in May.
But despite the party’s surging fortunes elsewhere in the Keystone State, Republican Tim Burns is struggling once again in his rematch with Democratic Rep. Mark Critz.
Mr. Critz, a former Murtha aide, holds a 6-point lead in the latest poll for the 12th District seat, a race that political prognosticators are still calling a tossup a little more than two weeks before Election Day.
Mr. Burns, a Western Pennsylvania businessman with substantial “tea party” backing, lost by almost 8 percentage points to Mr. Critz in a May 18 special election to fill Murtha’s unexpired term, a bitter result for the GOP in a race that attracted national attention as a bellwether for the November midterm vote.
But despite that loss, the latest poll numbers and his opponent’s 2-to-1 fundraising advantage, Mr. Burns, 42, said he expects a different outcome on Nov. 2, in part because of the rising hostility to the Democratic Party nationally.
“The intensity and the opposition to the current administration has really gone through the roof,” he said in a recent interview with Pittsburgh television station WPXI.
Mr. Burns, who consistently paints his opponent as a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama, is counting on the anti-Washington fervor to rally tea party voters, independents and libertarians to his side.
“They’re really looking for people who are willing to stand up to the current administration,” he said.
That certainly seems to be true throughout Pennsylvania, where anti-incumbent sentiment has the GOP poised to take as many as six congressional seats currently held by Democrats, who are also struggling to hold on to a Senate seat and the governor’s mansion in difficult races.
But while other Pennsylvania incumbent Democrats have been haunted by their votes for health care reform and the Wall Street bailout, Mr. Critz, 48, has managed to cast himself as a different kind of Democrat.
In his latest television ad, he tells voters: “I’m pro-life, pro-gun, and I’ll always be an independent voice in Congress.”
Mr. Critz, who says he would not have voted for the health care law, but will not vote now to repeal it, is running as a Washington outsider, despite his years of service as a Murtha staffer.
Those years of experience are paying off for the father of two in a district that stretches from the suburbs of Pittsburgh down to West Virginia.
“He’s worked that district for a long time, and you can see that he’s very comfortable out there on the stump,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
It’s a district that voted for Republican Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, fueling Republican hopes that a GOP candidate could capture the seat in 2010, despite a two-to-one Democratic Party advantage among registered voters.
But the pro-life, pro-gun Mr. Critz — he was endorsed by the NRA this month — has so far claimed the political center in the campaign. And Mr. Critz is also swamping the Burns campaign on the fundraising front, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed Friday.
From July 1 to Sept. 30, Mr. Critz has outspent his opponent almost 5-to-1, $477,000 to about $108,000.
Both candidates are getting help - Mr. Burns from the National Republican Congressional Committee and Mr. Critz from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Mr. Critz also got a boost last week from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who made a fundraising plug for the congressman at an appearance in Pittsburgh.
The Burns campaign pounced, using the Biden stop to support their claim that Mr. Critz is a loyal member of the Obama team.
That’s part of the problem for the Burns campaign, some political observers say: Too much reliance on negative attacks on Mr. Critz, not enough effort spent defining their own candidate.
“He doesn’t seem to have done a good enough job of telling people the kind of congressman he would be,” Mr. Madonna told The Washington Times.
“I tell everyone to take all of these polls with a grain of salt. There’s going to be a surprise somewhere,” he said. “There always is.”