PHILADELPHIA — The late Rep. John Murtha's seat will stay in Democratic hands after one of his top aides won a special election that dealt an early blow to Republicans hoping to make gains in the U.S. House in this fall's midterm election.
Mark Critz turned aside a strong challenge from Tim Burns, a Republican businessman, in a race scrutinized nationally for its potential implications come November. The GOP had hoped to capture the seat Murtha held for more than three decades by playing off growing opposition to congressional Democrats, tea party-driven discontent and unhappiness with President Barack Obama's health care law.
Critz, Murtha's district director, played up his ties to his old boss while fending off GOP criticism that he was a career bureaucrat who would blindly follow House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and liberal Democrats in Congress.
"The voters of this district won a great victory tonight. But it's ... bittersweet," Critz said in remarks prepared to address his supporters at a Johnstown victory party, "because we wouldn't be here right now if Jack Murtha hadn't left us too soon."
He stressed in the campaign that he was "pro-life, pro-gun" and determined to help a region hard-hit by job losses — Pennsylvania's statewide unemployment rate is 9 percent — policy positions that mirrored Murtha's. Democrats had a 2-to-1 edge over Republicans in voter registration in the socially conservative district.
"I think the Critz election is a powerful national message," Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell said in a phone interview early Wednesday morning. "If the theory is that the Republicans will sweep back the House, well, they have to win back seats like this and they got beat and they got beat badly."
Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, the anti-incumbency sentiment that swept longtime Sen. Arlen Specter out of office in a Democratic primary failed to materialize among the state's U.S. House incumbents.
Northeastern Pennsylvania Rep. Paul Kanjorski had what some considered the toughest challenge, but easily turned back an effort from Lackawanna County Commissioner Corey O'Brien. The 13-term Democrat will have a rematch against Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, who ran unopposed on the Republican side and gained notoriety four years ago for his stand against illegal immigrants.
Gerlach will face Manan Trivedi, an Iraq war veteran and physician who squeaked out a Democratic primary win over former newspaper editorial writer Doug Pike by more than 600 votes.
Murtha, who was the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, died in February at age 77 of complications from gallbladder surgery, setting off a dash to the special election.
Critz had 52 percent of the vote compared with 45 percent for Burns with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Both candidates will meet again in the fall after easily winning their respective parties' primary elections.
Burns spokesman Kent Gates said the GOP nominee hoped he had "raised the conversation of fixing the problems in Washington, including health care reform and out-of-control spending."
The race was considered so close and so important that Democrats called on former President Bill Clinton to campaign for Critz, while Republicans turned to U.S. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts to boost Burns.
But Burns, 42, of Eighty Four, could not follow the script Brown wrote earlier this year in Massachusetts. Brown won a special election for the Senate seat held by another high-profile Democrat, the late Edward M. Kennedy.
Each party poured in nearly $1 million for advertising, most of it negative. A tea party supporter, Burns disagreed with Critz's camp painting the Republican as an "out-of-touch millionaire" more concerned with tax loopholes for corporations and the rich.
Critz, 48, capitalized on a key endorsement from Murtha's widow, Joyce Murtha, and his ties to his hometown of Johnstown, a Murtha stronghold.