In western Pennsylvania, Tuesday's House election could repeat in November

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Just down the street from the John P. Murtha Neuroscience and Pain Institute, named for the late congressman who was famously practiced at attracting such government earmarks to his district, voters cast ballots Tuesday for his successor. In doing so, they also cast judgment on the legacy he represented.

On one side was Democrat Mark Critz, a former Murtha staff member who bucked this year's conventional wisdom by trying to leverage his Washington connections. On the other was Republican Tim Burns, a businessman and self-proclaimed "Washington outsider" who began his political career through the "tea party" movement.

In each case, the campaign was a referendum on what Murtha represented as a senior member of Congress who could play the Washington game for the benefit of his constituents. In the end, voters went with Murtha -- and Critz.

"He got us millions of jobs," Charles Finnegan, 72, a retired construction worker, said of Murtha after voting in Windber. "Critz, he's going to follow John Murtha's way of thinking."

The lessons of this race will no doubt embolden Democrats in the November midterm elections, because Murtha's seat was considered a prime pickup opportunity for Republicans. Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District is culturally conservative, although Democrats outnumber Republicans here by nearly 2 to 1.

Democrats, too, poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race in an attempt to show that the Republican plan to ride the wave of voter anger will not hold.

For many voters, though, the choice came down to one thing: the legacy of Murtha, who died earlier this year.

"I just feel like Critz is one of Murtha's workers," said Helen Marcinko, who also lives in Windber. "He knows all the same stuff that Murtha accomplished and I think he'll do a good job, too."

-- Sandhya Somashekhar

© 2010 The Washington Post Company