ANALYSIS: PA House Race Signals Path for Kratovil

   The victory of Democrat Mark Critz in a special Congressional election in southwestern Pennsylvania’s 12th District may signal some trends that bode well for Maryland’s Rep. Frank Kratovil, D-1st, in the November general election, but only if the vulnerable Eastern Shore incumbent takes a few pages from Critz’ playbook.

   The key lesson? Run your own race based on your district’s needs and resist the temptation, or the pressure from your party and donors, to nationalize what is essentially a local contest based on local issues. And say the word “jobs” in every speech and plaster the word, and the issue, on your website and campaign flyers.

  Critz defeated Republican Tim Burns by a comfortable 53-44 margin, with a Libertarian candidate taking 2 percent of the vote in the special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Rep. John (Jack) Murtha, D, who held the seat for nearly 36 years with a steely mix of conservative and populist positions on issues. The district includes Johnstown and spreads west to the outskirts of Pittsburgh in a region that has faced chronic economic problems. (Read the local report on the outcome of Tuesday’s special election here: http://www.ourtownonline.biz/articles/2010/05/18/somerset_news/news/local/news097.txt

  In our previous life, we traveled the Murtha district in presidential political campaigns in the past, meeting with a coffee klatch of retirees at a local fast food restaurant, veterans at the VFW hall and working moms at the grocery store. It is a district that in many ways is similar to the Eastern Shore of Maryland (minus the Bay and crabs) with many small towns, rural areas and a feeling of being forgotten and/or betrayed by the economy and the promises of government.  A Volkswagen assembly plant that provided good manufacturing jobs fled to Mexico, small businesses closed down and were replaced by rows of fast food restaurants.

   Murtha dominated the district for years, although he had a close call in his last contest, with a mix of hawkish views on defense and attention to bringing home the bacon, as in jobs, to the economically depressed district. Even a small ball bearings plant had a military contract to keep the machines and employees working. Critz, the winner of Tuesday’s special election, worked for Murtha for many years as  district director and director of economic development.

   The district, while nominally Democratic in registration, voted for Republican John McCain in the last presidential election, as did Maryland’s 1st District. But the PA district narrowly supported Democrat John Kerry over Republican George W. Bush in 2004, while Maryland’s 1st overwhelmingly supported Bush.

   The national Democratic and Republican parties invested heavily in the special election, with each side sending in heavy hitters to campaign in the district and pouring money into TV ads. Republicans tried to make it a referendum on Washington and voter anger while Critz and the Democrats played it more locally: “It’s about jobs, it’s about the economy,” he said in his victory speech. Jobs and the economy dominated his campaign and website.

   His Republican opponent, a wealthy businessman, promoted a platform that sounded like the national GOP playbook with some cribbing from the Tea Party folks, pledging to “take back the country” and “reduce government spending,” balance the federal budget and end “corruption in Congress.”

   In the Maryland 1st, Andy Harris, the expected Republican nominee, is so far running a more balanced campaign than his failed run against Kratovil two years ago. Most of that campaign focused on attack ads dubbing Kratovil a ‘liberal’ while this time Harris is talking about tax cuts, repealing the new federal healthcare law, cutting government spending and mandatory term limits for members of Congress.

  But Kratovil, at least on his website, seems to be running a national rather than local campaign– with the exception of Chesapeake Bay issues. On his list of issues, his priorities are “balancing the budget,” touting his opposition to the Obama healthcare bill, a get-tough on immigration stand, support of gun rights and, in last place, protecting the Bay. Jobs didn’t make the cut!

[UPDATE: Kratovil recently updated his campaign website to put “jobs and the economy” at the top of his issues list. Guess he reads The Cecil Times? Here is the link: http://kratovil.com/p/wfc/web/candidate/issue/public/ ]

   In appearances around the district and press releases, Kratovil has indeed highlighted steps he has taken to bring jobs to the district and help small business, including his sponsorship of a bill to protect local car dealerships from being forced out of business by financially strapped manufacturers. But for the most part, Kratovil– a prime target of the Tea Party people– has been playing defense and playing it on the Republican end of the field.

   The PA special election indicates that voters with a similar profile to the MD 1st can be won with a laser-like focus on jobs and the economy and other local bread and butter issues.

  Kratovil had an early fundraising lead and is expected to continue to receive campaign assistance from the national Democratic party. However, Harris has made inroads in fundraising in recent months and is pulling closer to Kratovil’s warchest. But so far the deep pockets of the conservative Club for Growth that fueled Harris’ last race have not materialized. Indeed, the Club’s PAC has not even endorsed Harris yet and the group is expected to be devoting much of its resources to the Pennsylvania Senate race, in which Pat Toomey, the former president of the Club, is the Republican nominee.

   As the Maryland campaign cranks up in the next few months, the candidates would be smart to take a look at the PA special election and some lessons learned.

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