By Xan Gwaltney
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP/UTC/The Loop) — Democrats have long dominated the late Rep. John Murtha’s district in western Pennsylvania, but Republicans have made inroads in recent years that could help them win back the seat — and some longtime Murtha supporters say they’re open to voting for a GOP candidate.
Murtha died Monday at a hospital at age 77 after complications from gallbladder surgery. Gov. Ed Rendell is planning a special election to replace him.
Rose Marie Favina, 69, described herself a Democrat who supported Murtha and particularly liked what she called his “pro-life” views. Now she’s considering switching to the GOP and plans to vote for the best candidate for Murtha’s seat, whatever the party.
“I don’t like being called a liberal, because I’m not a liberal,” said Favina at the Eat’n Center, a deli and grocery in Johnstown, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s hardscrabble coal and steel country.
Political analysts said Tuesday that they expect a competitive contest in the race to replace Murtha, whose ability to steer federal dollars to the economically strapped district made him a powerful figure even beyond Pennsylvania.
The race is expected to be a marquee contest. A Republican win in the traditionally Democratic stronghold would be hugely symbolic and could create momentum for a national GOP that sees itself as resurgent heading into the 2010 midterm elections.
“The unfortunate passing of Murtha opens yet another seat Republicans think they can make a run at,” said Muhlenberg College political scientist Chris Borick. “They’re optimistic.”
Murtha’s district encompasses all or part of nine counties in southwestern Pennsylvania and embodies the region’s image of coal mines, steel mills and blue-collar values. He was elected in 1974 and has won re-election over the years by large margins.
Registered Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 ratio to Republicans in the district, a November 2009 tally by state election officials showed. But many of those Democrats are socially conservative, the kind of voters that used to be called “Reagan Democrats” back in the 1980s.
“This is a hardscrabble, blue-collar, ethnic, culturally conservative, pro-life, pro-gun, very patriotic district,” said Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “These folks have deep concerns about the social proclivities of the party in recent years on abortion rights, gay rights and guns.”
“I expect we’ll win that seat,” said state GOP chairman Rob Gleason, who doubles as the party’s chairman in Cambria County, where Johnstown is.
Sylvia Mindish, 60, has owned West End Beer Mart, a beer distributor in Johnstown, for 30 years. She’s a Republican who has long voted for Murtha, largely because of his ability to win federal dollars to boost the area’s struggling economy. She, too, said party labels won’t matter much when she considers who should succeed him.
“I hope it doesn’t come down to a Democrat and Republican thing,” Mindish said. “I’m a Republican and I’ve voted for him repeatedly.”
The willingness of some Democrats, also, to cross over was evident in the 2008 White House race.
Republican John McCain edged Democrat Barack Obama by 873 votes. Four years earlier, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry won the district by 2 points over George W. Bush.
Murtha had a brief scare during his 2008 re-election bid. His GOP challenger gained momentum in the fall after Murtha said some residents of his district were racist, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area.”
He apologized, then later told WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, that “this whole area, years ago, was really redneck.”
Murtha eventually recovered and beat William Russell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who moved from Virginia to Johnstown to run against him, by about 58 percent to 42 percent.
Some names of potential Murtha successors are already beginning to surface in the sprawling 12th District.
Republicans planning to compete in the special election include Russell and Tim Burns, a businessman from the town of Eighty Four.
Prospective Democratic candidates include Mark Singel, who was lieutenant governor under the late Gov. Robert P. Casey and now works as a lobbyist in Harrisburg, the state capital, and state Sen. John Wozniak, both from Johnstown.
“I’m having that conversation with my family,” Wozniak said Tuesday, acknowledging that he’s considering running to succeed his old friend.
Singel didn’t return telephone calls Tuesday.
Tom Ceraso, a commissioner in Westmoreland County, said he may run but only if he is convinced he has broad support. A campaign is “something that i would consider given the right set of circumstances,” he said.
More candidates are likely to surface, and it will be up to party leaders from all of the counties to recommend a nominee in the special election to the executive committee of the Democratic State Committee, said Helen Whitefield, the Democratic chairwoman for Cambria County, which includes Johnstown.
“They’re laying back, but the wheels are turning,” Whitefield said.
Copyright 2010 Associated Press