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Testing the Murtha Connection

The wife of the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) is out of the race, but former Murtha staffers are hoping one of their own can carry the banner in the special election for his seat.

Mark Critz, Murtha’s district director, made it clear Monday that he will enter the special election for the seat, scheduled for May, which has already attracted two prominent statewide Democrats. Critz resigned from his official duties Monday — the same day the Congressman’s widow, Joyce Murtha, announced through a spokesman she was not going to run.

“It will be a tough race, but someone who comes with the issue base that Mark has will have an easier time than some of the other people who have been mentioned so far,” said Ed Mitchell, Murtha’s longtime media consultant, who said he hopes to work with Critz but has not yet spoken with him about his bid.

Local party officials in both parties will meet at separate nominating conferences next month to pick their nominee for the special election scheduled for May 18. Meanwhile, candidates seeking a full term must collect the requisite number of signatures to turn in on March 9 to run in the statewide primary on the same day.

With anti-incumbent fever sweeping the country, it’s unclear whom local party officials will favor — a former Murtha staffer or other well-known local candidates such as former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel or former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer. Republicans are attempting to target the seat, but the special election falls on primary day, when several other competitive races are likely to bring Democrats out in high numbers.

Singel initially said he would defer to Joyce Murtha, but he said in a Monday phone interview that he’s charging ahead with his campaign. Many local Republicans see him as the candidate to beat in the special election because he is well-known in the district. National Democrats, however, note that he spent the last 10 years as a lobbyist and lost two bids for office in the 1990s.

“Lobbyists are like cholesterol,” Singel said. “Too many of them can clog your arteries, but it takes a little good cholesterol to get your system working right. I’m the good cholesterol.”

Hafer said she has plans to meet with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week. As a statewide office-holder from 1989 to 2005, Hafer has strong name identification in the district but perhaps not as much clout in the nomination conference. Hafer was a Republican but switched parties in 2003.

There are other Democrats in the race, though they are much less likely to get the nomination. Cambria County Controller Ed Cernic Jr. announced Monday, while conservative former Cambria County Controller Albert Penksa is considering a bid. Navy veteran Ryan Bucchianeri has been in the race for several months.

Several local Democrats grumbled that Murtha staffers are scrambling to help a colleague win the seat in order to guarantee their future employment. Murtha and his top aides are well-known in the southwestern Pennsylvania district, which has received a significant amount of federal funds for local projects in part because of the Congressman’s plumb spot on the Appropriations Committee.

There’s no official word yet on whether Joyce Murtha will endorse any of the Democrats. But Mitchell speculated that if she endorses anyone, it will be Critz. Although he said he’s uncertain that she would insert herself into the political race, she might do so for the “welfare” of her late husband’s staff.

The calendar for the weeks ahead is expected to be verified by Wednesday, although one suggested schedule requires that candidates submit their names by March 3 and local officials would meet to nominate a candidate on March 6. The state executive committee will verify the decision March 8 — one day before the filing deadline to run for a full term for the seat.

Pennsylvania Republicans were initially optimistic about the district because the GOP presidential ticket won it in 2008 by a slim margin. But Republicans don’t have other competitive primaries to help drive turnout.

What’s more, it appears Republicans have not found a top-tier candidate for the race, leaving one national Republican to groan “there’s no bench” for the GOP in the southwestern Pennsylvania district.

Much of the GOP’s hope rests on how much of his own money businessman Tim Burns would be willing to put in the race. While money won’t win the nomination among party insiders picking their candidate at their March 11 confab, party officials would certainly look favorably on a candidate able to put big money into his own campaign.

Burns has already loaned himself $75,000 for the race, according to his last finance report at the end of 2009, and he has $74,000 in cash on hand.

“I can tell you, as his media consultant, he’s equally fiscally conservative when it comes to his own campaign,” Pennsylvania GOP consultant John Brabender said of Burns’ campaign spending so far.

Businessman Mark Pasquerilla (R), one of the wealthiest men in the district and an avid Murtha supporter, indicated earlier this week that he might be interested in running for the seat if Joyce Murtha does not. Pasquerilla did not return a phone call or e-mail request for comment.

An ability to self-fund would be a key factor for the cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee, who aided 2008 GOP nominee Bill Russell by putting $500,000 into his bid against Murtha only to lose that race by 16 points.

Russell said in a phone interview that he has not heard a peep from the NRCC but that’s “to be expected.” He’s running in the special election but is gunning for the statewide primary on May 18, when he believes he will have an advantage because of name identification.

Murtha died Feb. 8 from complications following gallbladder surgery.

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