Republican candidates have won significant elections in climates that were less hospitable, at least on paper, than the one surrounding the special election to replace the late John Murtha last May in PA-12, a district that voted for John McCain in 2008 and where President Obama's approval ratings barely topped 30 percent. Republican Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell won the governorships of deep blue New Jersey (with some savvy help from the RGA, who attacked Christie's independent opponent) and Virginia (another seamlessly organized and run campaign that effectively combined old and new media tactics), a state Obama carried by 7 percent. And Republican Scott Brown shockingly won the Senate seat in Massachusetts (with the help of Mitt Romney's effective political organization) formerly held by Ted Kennedy.
So it was logical that Republican Tim Burns would pick up Murtha's district for the GOP. But he didn't, and Democrat Mark Critz managed to keep Murtha's seat in the Democratic column largely because the race exposed the disorganization and lack of coordination among national and local Republican organizations. This dysfunction still exists among the GOP, and it may cause the party to lose some seats that it should win in November.
Burns and Critz will face off again in a rematch in November. But it is worth reviewing how Critz won the first time. His victory showed the institutional advantages, particularly on the ground, that Democrats still have over Republicans in many districts and races. Critz tacked to the right of Obama and hammered Burns as the "outsourcing" candidate.
Burns, on the other hand, was never able to define himself positively to voters in the district. He partly was taken hostage by national Republicans, with their lack of infrastructure and oftentimes lack of strategic thinking. National Republicans nationalized the election. They ran ads attacking Nancy Pelosi and even John Murtha's pork barrel projects, oblivious to the fact that voters in Murtha's district may actually have liked the money Murtha brought back home. In essence, Critz seemed like the local candidate while the GOP's approach made Burns seem more out of touch with the district's concerns. Critz won more comfortably than prognosticators--on the left and right--could have predicted.
Since he's been in Washington, Critz has shown his independence by voting against the financial regulation bill. Since he was elected so late in the cycle, Critz's "incumbency" actually has granted him an advantage by giving him a head start on the re-election cycle and allowing him to build more of a ground game in the district.
Burns has continued his attempt to ride the anti-Democratic and anti-establishment wave by trying to tie Critz to national Democrats. This strategy was not as successful as Republicans thought it would be the first time, but Burns's ability to pour his own wealth into the race will allow him to keep this race competitive and enable him to define himself better to voters this cycle. Burns will hope that more voters who are angry at Democrats will turn out in the general election. Right now, analysts have tipped the race slightly in Critz's favor.
This rematch is worth watching to see if Republicans have learned from the special election and are adapting their tactics. Nationally, this race may prove that Democrats have more of an infrastructure in place in many districts, and that the lack of organization and coordination among Republican committees and groups is hurting the GOP.