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Murtha Lives!

The legendary pork-barrel politician may keep his district ... from beyond the grave.

Twelve hours a day for several weeks now, supporters of Tim Burns, the GOP's candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania's Twelfth district, have staffed a call center in a mostly-vacant office building in downtown Washington, PA. Bundles of phone cables hang from the ceiling, and the walls are decorated with navy “Tim Burns for Congress” signs and an American flag. "If he wins, he's going to go to Washington and slow down the massive spending," avowed Chris Burdick, 21, who had driven up from West Virginia to make calls.

Like Burdick, volunteers have come from out of town after learning about Burns on conservative websites and from Fox News. Across the country, other Burns supporters are using the campaign's call-from-home program, which allows them to reach voters in southwest Pennsylvania from kitchen tables and living room couches as far away as California. Burns strategist Kent Gates is unapologetic about the outsiders. “This is a national election,” he declares.

Burns, a 42-year-old multimillionaire tech company founder, hopes to finish the term of Democratic Representative Jack Murtha, who died in February at the age of 77, after a 36-year, $2 billion reign as the King of Pork. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a thick shock of dark hair and a firm handshake, Burns has the humorless air of an Eagle Scout.

He champions the Tea Party and its causes, including repeal of health care reform and opposition to cap-and-trade and amnesty for illegal immigrants. He rails against wasteful government spending and against bailouts for auto companies, banks, and “people who bought houses they can’t afford.” “How many of you have received your bailout checks?” he asked a Tea Party rally in Johnstown.

The May 18 special election, which remains too close to call, could put the sprawling blue-collar Twelfth in Republican hands for the first time since 1974. But it is also a referendum on Obama’s presidency, before what many expect to be a harrowing election for the Democrats in November. Can a Republican like Burns, running against government spending, win in this district that has been so thoroughly dependent on federal largesse?

Murtha’s hulking frame hovers over the election. He remains a beloved figure in this rural region dotted with former steel and mining communities. The defense contractors he brought to the Johnstown and Uniontown areas have provided much-needed jobs. The Democratic candidate to replace him, 48-year-old Mark Critz, is a ten-year Murtha staffer who describes himself as "pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-jobs," and is running on the promise that he can keep the federal dollars flowing.

Thin, with a receding hairline, Mark Critz lacks his old boss’s physical presence. His default expression is a former bookkeeper’s furrowed brow.  In a May 6 debate with Burns in Johnstown, he punctuated his answers with “uhs” and seemed at times  to lose track of what he was saying.  To remind voters of his promise to keep industrial jobs in the area, he favors hard hats and denim shirts, and he drops Murtha’s name frequently. If not for his connection with Murtha,  he probably could not have withstood a primary challenge.

Critz is counting on voters like Ricky Bergstedt, who on Thursday afternoon stopped by the campaign office in Washington to pick up some doorknob signs for his neighbors. Bergstedt, 55, a steel plant worker and local union president, believes Murtha was "a wonderful Congressman” and that Critz “has already got his foot in the door with all his experience.” For Bergstedt and his fellow blue collar workers, this is not a national race--it is very local. "Anything we could have our representatives do, whether it be tax breaks or training or economic development, that's a big thing here in Western Pennsylvania. Jobs. That's the big issue."

Burns may be too white-collar upscale for this district, but he is surfing the wave of anti-incumbent sentiment that began here soon after Obama won in 2008. The district was the only one in the country to back Republican John McCain--albeit by less than a thousand votes--after having supported Democrat John Kerry in 2004. The Twelfth is typical of the small-town and rural blue-collar districts that became loyally Democratic after the New Deal, but began to waver after civil rights advocates and feminists gained prominence in the national Democratic Party. Murtha, worried about Obama’s vote in 2008, called it a “racist area,” which he later revised to “really redneck.”

Burns’s support is coming from the district’s relatively few Republicans, as well as from the Tea Party activists who have been holding demonstrations in the district at least once a month and who see this race as another proxy war against Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But Burns also enjoys support from disillusioned Democrats like Tom Fulcomer, a retired steelworker and lifelong Democrat who said he switched party affiliations to vote against Obama in 2008. “Everything he’s done screwed things up, like that health care” says Fulcomer, who was concerned that deficit spending would lead to cuts in his Social Security.

Fulcomer, 63, was a fan of Murtha, who “did a lot of good for this area.” He does not bother to reconcile his worry over the current deficit with his support for Murtha’s earmarks. “The Democrats used to always be for the working man,” he says, pointing to New Deal reforms like unemployment insurance and Social Security. But in an era of Wall Street bailouts, he says, “the poor working person is really getting the shaft.”

Burns claims that he was inspired to run for office after attending a Tea Party rally in Washington County, but when it comes to Murtha and earmarks, he has not embraced the Tea Party line. Asked at the recent debate whether he would continue Murtha’s legacy, Burns waxed poetic. “Neither of us will ever be able to replace John Murtha,” he said. Burns promised to “fight to create jobs in this district,” and he rejected the idea of abolishing earmarks. “I can’t believe that bulletproof vests for our troops is wasteful spending,” he declared. 

With a battle over control of Congress looming, the race has attracted national money. At the end of April, according to FEC filings, Critz had raised $700,000 and Burns $1 million. (More of Burns's money came from out of state, and according to a Washington Post investigation half of Critz's came from the defense industry and other businesses that relied on Murtha’s earmarks.) The National Republican Congressional Committee and its Democratic counterpart have each spent about $1 million, and slickly produced, mean-spirited ads run almost constantly on local TV stations. A Critz commercial accuses Burns of shipping jobs overseas when he sold his company and being “out for himself, not us,” while a typical Burns ad warns that Critz will “put the liberal agenda before Pennsylvania.”

The race has also attracted name-brand national politicians. Newt Gingrich and Scott Brown have stumped for Burns, and Sarah Palin endorsed him on Facebook. Bill Clinton, a popular figure in this area, rallied Critz voters in Johnstown on Sunday. Critz also brought Joe Biden to a fundraiser in Pittsburgh, which is outside the district. But notably, Obama has not visited the Twelfth, and Pelosi, a close friend of Murtha's, has raised money for Critz but has kept her distance from the district. They may be worried about being tarred by a Critz defeat.

But Obama and Pelosi may be in for a pleasant surprise. Though polls had been showing Burns ahead, a Susquehanna Polling & Research survey of likely voters a week before the election had Critz up 44 percent to 38 percent. The same poll showed the economy was voters' number one issue, with the national deficit, one of Burns's key talking points, a distant second. When it comes to electing a representative, voters fears of being cut off from federal spending may trump their distaste for Obama’s and the national Democrats’ agenda.  

Tuesday's election is also complicated by the fact that primaries for November are being held on the same day. Conceivably, one of the contenders might win the seat on Tuesday but lose his primary and be unable to run for a full term in November. Critz holds a commanding lead in his primary, but Burns is facing a serious challenger. According to the Susquehanna poll, he is only up two points over Bill Russell, an Army veteran who ran against Murtha in 2008. Russell has called Burns an "opportunist" for entering the special election when Russell had already planned to challenge Murtha again this year.

As Russell’s showing demonstrates, Burns has not established himself as a popular figure in the district. If he pulls out a victory, it will be primarily because of voters’ rejection of Obama and the Democrats’ Congressional leadership. But if Critz wins, it also won’t be because he has captured the voters’ hearts. For Critz, and indirectly for Burns, Jack Murtha remains the main character in this race.

Gates, the Burns strategist, grew up in Cambria County, not far from Johnstown. "My grandfather was a coal miner and a Republican," Gates recalls. "And at his dinner table, you were not allowed to say a bad thing against Murtha." Though Gates asserts that voters have moved on, Murtha's shadow may be too big to escape so soon after the Congressman's death.

Amy Crawford is a reporter at the Tribune-Review in Greensburg, PA.