Two Roads Diverged in Penn’s Woods: Will PA-12 be NY-23 or Massachusetts?

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

Will the special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Congressman John P. Murtha be a re-run of New York 23, or a Republican coup like the election of U.S. Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts?

The direction of the race now lies in the hands of the nine county Republican committees who will select conferees to a convention that will choose the GOP nominee in the special election likely to be held in conjunction with the upcoming May Primary.

New York 23, you may recall, was won by the Democrat Bill Owens after a Republican civil war erupted when the party establishment selected a nominee who held views to the left of President Obama. This spawned the third party candidacy of Doug Hoffman who quickly became a cause célèbre for the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Ultimately GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava withdrew from the race; then plunged the knife in Hoffman by endorsing Owens.

In Massachusetts the scenario unfolded very differently. The establishment GOP early on wrote off Scott Brown. But, the Bay state’s TEA party movement ignited a grassroots brushfire for Brown which lifted his candidacy putting it back on the national Republican radar screen. The GOP establishment engaged in the race; forged a common bond with the TEA partiers and Brown scored an upset victory that literally changed the political landscape in Washington, D.C.
The PA-12 special election could go either way.

Bill Russell was the party’s 2008 nominee against Murtha and he gave the incumbent a run for his money. Murtha and the Democrats went into panic mode the last weeks of the campaign and then rode the national Democratic wave to victory.

Russell has never stopped running. He has been engaged fore square in the TEA party movement that burns bright throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. It is likely Russell will be the choice of a majority of the grassroots, TEA party types and certainly has emerged as a favorite of the GOP’s conservative wing.

But the TEA party activists will have little voice in the party selection process. Under the rules of the Republican State Committee each of the nine counties which have territory in the 12th Congressional District will select conferees who will meet in convention to select the nominee. Typically conferees are tried and true party activists. Thus, the establishment GOP will pick the candidate.

What makes the picture both more complicated and more hopeful is the fact that southwestern Pennsylvania Republican party leaders tend to be more conservative than those in some other parts of the state. They also tend to be fiercely independent. Thus, the establishment party in Murtha’s district is more in tune with the grassroots back-to-our-principles movement sweeping the region, the state and the nation.

Left to their own devices, Republican leaders in PA-12 likely will arrive at a party-uniting consensus. But, this is a special election and that means outside interests – including the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican National Committee will try and bring about the selection of a cookie cutter candidate who fits Washington’s poll and focus group driven view of the world.

Also complicating matters is that Republican State Committee Chairman Robert A. Gleason, Jr. hails from Cambria County, which will send one of the biggest delegations of conferees to the convention. Under Gleason, the Republican State Committee has recruited candidates in congressional districts around the state to oppose grassroots conservatives, and even tried to gin up competition to Pat Toomey in the U.S. Senate race.

Gleason has also had an unholy alliance with Murtha over the years. Thus, he will want a candidate beholden to him. But he is also pragmatic, and with the eyes of the nation on PA-12 Gleason will want, above all, to win. This means the considerable influence of the Gleason organization will, for the first time in decades, be deployed on behalf of the Republican candidate. And that dramatically improves chances for a Republican victory.

The upcoming special election in PA-12 will be a gut check for the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. All the crosscurrents and rip tides that currently roil both the state and national Republican parties will be at play in this selection process.

In the end we are going to get either NY-23 or a Pennsylvania version of Scott Brown. It will be interesting to see what happens.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])

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