Election 2010: Republican Path To Power Goes Through Western Pennsylvania

Let there be no doubt about what's on the ballot in today's special election to replace the late Rep. Jack Murtha. The Republicans are making quite clear in one of their latest TV ads that they want this to be a referendum on the "Obama-Pelosi" agenda.

The ad attacks the health care bill and the cap and trade energy/climate change bill that passed the House last June. But the Democrat running in the race, former Murtha aide Mark Critz, has said he is opposed to both those bills.

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One of two things will happen in this race:

Either the Republican candidate will win, marking the first successful House special election contest for the GOP this cycle, and Democrats will fear 2010 may be the rout in the making many anticipate.

Or the Democratic candidate will win and Republicans will need to reconsider their strategic focus on Obama and Pelosi and whether hammering away at those national Democrats will get them the 40 seats they need to become the majority party once again.

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"I think Mark Critz is going to win and in great part because Mark Critz turned out to be a very good candidate. You know, candidates matter," said Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pennsylvania., on ABC News'/Washington Post's "Top Line."

"Our polls have him up by significant percentage points. I think he's going to prevail because he turned out to be a very fine candidate and Mark deserves all the credit himself. Candidates matter, there's no question about that," he said.

It is true that Democratic registration is twice the size of Republican registration in the district and that Democrats may be a bit more driven to head to the polls because of the competitive Senate primary on their side between Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak. Those advantages may be the Democrats' saving grace.

Republicans are eager to point out why the primary-day electorate expected to show up at the polls in today's special election creates a tougher environment for them than will be the case in November.

"In a general election, this is the kind of seat that we have to win," Republican National Committee political director Gentry Collins told a group of reporters last week. "I think that the special election dynamics are different. The Democrats do not have a 2.55 to one turnout advantage in a district like this on general election day. That is a primary election phenomenon."

"My view is that there are turnout drivers for the Democrats in that special election that enhance the generic advantage they've had and they won't have that kind of advantage in the fall. I'm not suggesting that we can't win in the special election. But I think it is a lot harder in the special election than it is in the fall. You're right in the fall. It is exactly the kind of seat that we have to win. But I do think there are turnout dynamics in the special election that do not favor us," Collins said.

Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district in the southwest corner of the state is the only district in the nation that voted for John Kerry in 2004 and flipped to John McCain in 2008.

In October 2008, Murtha described what he saw as the possible resistance to Obama in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board.

"There's no question Western Pennsylvania is a racist area," said Murtha. "The older population is more hesitant," he added.

If Democrats lose the seat, they will argue that the district had been trending in the GOP direction in recent years. They will likely point to Murtha's 58 percent victory in 2008 – his lowest share of the vote since he ran for a full term in 1974. And that 58 percent victory from 2008 came with a hefty $500,000 investment from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for one of their long term incumbents.

If the Democrats defy the trends that were seen in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts and keep this seat in Democratic hands, they will point to their candidate's relentless focus on jobs while their opponent kept attention on "Obama-Pelosi."

The Republican messaging, in TV ads and mailers as well as on the debate stage and the stump, indeed has been all about the "Obama-Pelosi" agenda. Primarily, the cap and trade and the healthcare bills have been the focus of the Republican message.

A verdict on those two different messages delivered by the voters could have significant ramifications for the upcoming midterm election battle.

It's unclear if the Republicans will be successful in this Western Pennsylvania district today. It does seem clear, however, that if the GOP wins, it will largely be seen as a substantial souring on the Democrats being in charge in Washington -- and, perhaps, the leading edge of a 2010 election wave.