Two veteran House Democrats could face more complicated bids for re-election next year, depending on the outcome of a federal investigation into PMA Group, a now-defunct lobbying firm.
While investigators look into Reps. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) and Peter Visclosky’s (D-Ind.) ties to the firm, voters in their respective districts will ultimately get the chance to weigh in on whether they want to send their Representatives back to Washington for another term.
Republicans are optimistic that the ongoing investigation and negative publicity will help make both Members targets for defeat in 2010. Still, short of either man facing federal indictment, the GOP faces many hurdles in its attempts to defeat the veteran lawmakers.
“The bottom line is obviously Republicans have a much better shot if these guys are taken away in handcuffs,— a national Republican operative said.
Republicans said their best target is Murtha, who has already attracted three opponents, including a Democratic primary challenger — more challengers than he’s had in recent history. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won Murtha’s district in the 2008 presidential race with 49 percent of the vote, while Murtha won re-election with 58 percent.
Southwestern Pennsylvania Democratic Party Caucus Chairman Jack Hanna said that the seat would become very competitive if Murtha does not run for re-election.
“If it’s an open seat, the Democrats will need to field a candidate who is moderate, a modern-day version of Jack Murtha, as opposed to someone who is ensconced in the old style of political deal-making and earmarks,— Hanna said.
Hanna acknowledged that even though Murtha was getting plowed in the local press because of the PMA investigation, he will be hard to beat because of how deep his ties run in the district.
“About every week or so, there’s another article coming out on the airport or his nephew. He’s getting beat up badly,— Hanna said. “However, the guy has done so much for so many people — including a ton of Republicans — and delivered the bacon. It’s going to be hard to unseat him.—
This isn’t the first time that Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to target the 19-term Congressman. The 2008 GOP nominee, Bill Russell, spent almost $3.5 million in his campaign against Murtha thanks to a last-minute influx of national money because Murtha made a gaffe on the stump.
Russell is back for another run against Murtha in 2010, but Republicans appear to be pinning their hopes on businessman Tim Burns instead. In a phone interview, Burns said that while he didn’t get into the race because of Murtha’s ethical problems, he believes voters in the district are finally realizing that it’s time for a change.
“One of four things is either going to happen to John Murtha: He’s going to retire, pass away, get indicted or get voted out of office,— Burns said.
Burns is independently wealthy and is open to putting some of his own money into the race. He said he has signed Republican media consultant John Brabender, who has worked extensively in the Keystone State, and hired Public Opinion Strategies to do his polling.
Meanwhile, Murtha has also attracted a primary challenger. Navy officer Ryan Bucchianeri, who was a field goal kicker on the Navy football team, announced he will run against Murtha next year.
Bucchianeri is viewed as a long shot, but he is Murtha’s first serious primary challenger in recent history. He insisted that recent headlines about Murtha and the PMA scandal had nothing to do with his entrance into the race.
“I’m not going to comment on the incumbent and any other candidates at this time,— he said. “In the interim, I invite Pennsylvanians to continue to research the incumbent and ask if he is still truly representing the best interests and character of the people of Pennsylvania and the Democratic Party.—
Unlike Murtha’s swing district, Visclosky’s district is solidly Democratic. President Barack Obama won it last year with 62 percent of the vote, while the Congressman won re-election with 71 percent. Chris Sautter, a Democratic consultant from the Hoosier State, said Visclosky is likely only vulnerable in a primary.
Sautter also pointed out that the district has evolved since Visclosky took office 26 years ago — and an increasing Hispanic and black population could make the Congressman vulnerable to a challenge from someone with ties to those communities.
“His numbers, I’m sure, are still quite good right now,— Sautter said. “But there is a growing Hispanic population and there has always been a large African-American population, and I think there has been some sense among some people that those two groups should share more in office-holding.—
Lake County Sheriff Roy Dominguez (D) is considering a gubernatorial run in 2012, but he could be a strong candidate against Visclosky if he decided to switch gears. So far, however, Dominguez has not publicly expressed any interest in running for Congress.
It will be be a challenge for Republicans to find a candidate who can raise the funds to compete in the heavily Democratic district. Though no Republicans have expressed interest, there are several wealthy potential candidates. Former state Rep. Dan Dumezich (R), who is contemplating running against Sen. Evan Bayh (D) in 2010, could put much of his money in the race.