U.S. Rep. John Murtha's death three months ago at age 77 left the seat for Pennsylvania's 12th District empty. A special election for Murtha's successor is set for May 18.
For nearly 36 years, a House seat in conservative southwestern Pennsylvania stayed in the hands of the Democrats for a single reason: Rep. John Murtha. He was a master at bringing federal dollars to his district.
But three months ago, Murtha died at age 77. And now, with a special election set for May 18, Pennsylvania's 12th District is up for grabs.
People in the district tend to be conservative — not just the Republicans, but the Democrats, too. Many work in the coal mining and steel industries. They are pro-gun and anti-abortion rights.
Murtha routinely won in landslides. In fact, it's not hard to find Republicans who voted for him time and time again.
"I am a Republican," said 72-year-old Janet Hagerich. "He's probably the only Democrat that I ever voted for, because he has a lot of pull in our district."
But now Hagerich says she likes what she hears from Tim Burns, 42, a wealthy Republican businessman.
"I got into this race about a year ago," Burns said at a campaign stop, "simply because I was concerned about what I saw happening to the country. I've never been in politics before. I think this country is in a fight for its life. We've got a great opportunity here."
Burns had stopped by a combination restaurant/sports bar in the town of Nanty Glo. He had to make his pitch quickly. The Pittsburgh Penguins game was about to start, and competing with the Stanley Cup playoffs is a loser for any politician. Burns finished before the puck was dropped.
Retired coal miner Tony Sharon, 79, said he's thrilled to see a Republican with a chance to win.
"He can be one of a majority that goes to Washington that can put our country back together again," Sharon said.
The Democrat in the race is Mark Critz, a longtime top aide to Murtha. Critz said that because of that experience, he knows the district and its people, and more important, he's already been working for them.
Critz campaigned in downtown Washington, Pa., where Barbara Barnes, 59, a member of the plumbers union, said she's worried that if Republicans retake the House, they'll kill future economic stimulus legislation.
"These no votes will put the county into total ruin," Barnes said. "We are rebuilding. We've lost the jobs, we've lost the industry. The stimulus money was very much needed in southwest Pennsylvania."
Both candidates have brought in big-name help from outside the district.
On Tuesday, Critz was joined by West Virginia's Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin. He also got some musical help from John Bauman — aka Bowzer from the doo-wop group Sha Na Na.
Republicans campaigning for Tim Burns include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Newly minted Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown will be in the district Friday. Political analyst Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College said Brown's appearance is meaningful.
"In some respects, it's a miniature or House replay of what we saw in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate election a couple of months ago," Madonna said. "It has all of the same characteristics."
Those include a special election to fill an open seat long held by a legendary Democrat, and the ongoing frustration over the slow pace of economic recovery.
The candidates held a debate in Johnstown on Wednesday night. Republican Burns' strategy has been to shift focus away from Murtha to President Obama, and to link Democrat Critz to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "She knows that once he's elected, he will be one more vote for her liberal agenda. Don't kid yourself. She's not doing it because he's a nice guy."
Critz's response: "You don't know me very well. Nobody tells me what to do. I do what I think is right."
The stakes are very high for both parties. For Democrats, retaining Murtha's seat could mean that perhaps this year's political landscape isn't as bad as it seems. For Republicans, a win would make them even more enthusiastic heading into the midterm elections in November.