The contest to fill the seat previously held by the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) is quickly shaping up as yet another special election battle whose implications are likely to stretch far beyond one congressional district.
Analysis say the Pennsylvania 12th District battle might provide the clearest sign to date of the kind of political climate facing the two parties in November and represents exactly the kind of battleground on which much of the 2012 election will be fought.
"It is a national race because the voters in this district that used to be called Reagan Democrats -- nowadays they're called independents or conservative Democrats -- these are the voters that make up the difference in a national election," said Joseph DiSarro, chair of the political science department at the Washington and Jefferson College. "This is a district that will set the direction of the parties in the future."
The largely rural district stretches across parts of nine counties in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. It represents much of what's left of the state's coal industry and manufacturing base, though both of those sectors have taken a major hit in recent decades.
On paper, Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans here, but the conservative nature of many of those voters figures to make the district highly competitive. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) prevailed over President George W. Bush by two percentage points, but Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried the district by a few hundred votes in 2008. It was the only district in the United States to switch its allegiance from Democratic to Republican in the two elections.
The district also sits at the intersection of two regions of the country that are likely to represent two of the major political fronts of the 2010 campaign -- Appalachia and the Rust Belt. Republicans are targeting a number of incumbents across those two regions, believing that the moderate and conservative voters in those areas that abandoned the GOP in the last two campaign cycles have now turned against the Democratic majority.
As such, many of the issues that are likely to play a central role in the May 18 special election -- health care, government spending, cap-and-trade legislation and the role of government -- are likely to return as major campaign themes come the fall.
"Appalachia has really become the new battleground politically, which is somewhat surprising, you have a lot of long-time Democratic incumbent from very conservative districts in that whole area and the culture of those districts is certainly friendly to a Republican message," said Isaac Wood, a House races expert at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"It would be a lot different for the Republican party to win an open seat than to kick out entrenched incumbents such as Rick Boucher, Allan Mollohan or Nick Rahall," Wood added. "But Republicans are certainly targeting them and they feel like the Democratic messaging on cap-and-trade will really backfire in some of these areas."
Boucher (D-Va.), Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and Rahall (D-W.Va.) are poised to face well-known and potentially well-funded political figures in the fall. Additionally, Republicans are targeting first- and second-term Democrats in other parts of Pennsylvania and the Midwest.
"The district is filled with voters that are exactly the type the Republican party is targeting right now, that really buy into the message that Washington is broken and spending too much," Wood said.
And though few analysts believe that climate and energy legislation will be a major focal point in the election, they do say that in some of those coal producing or manufacturing-based districts -- like the Pennsylvania 12th -- it will be another major cog in the GOP's argument against the administration's policy agenda.
"It has no real salience to voters but it does fit a pattern -- if you're running as a Republican you start going through this list of things and this is another example of the way that the government could intrude into their lives," said Terry Madonna, a Pennsylvania politics expert at Franklin and Marshall College.
DiSarro said there was little doubt that Republicans would raise the climate bill at some point.
"Cap-and-trade is not popular here. Period. Coal mining jobs are some of the best jobs in the area," DiSarro said. "You're not going to walk into a union hall and start talking about cap-and-trade unless you have a death wish."
For the GOP, a special election win would have broader political symbolism. The party has lost nine straight House special elections -- losing three Republican-held seats in the process -- and much like Scott Brown's suprise win in Massachusetts it would come at the expense of a seat that was long held by a Democratic icon.
"The stakes are higher for Democrats than Republicans -- it's the seat of one of their most powerful members of Congress and one that they have won handily," said Madonna. "If they win, it's the congressional equivalent of Brown winning the Kennedy seat ... the House equivalent of that. The bragging rights would be impressive."
Murtha passed away earlier this month due to complications from gallbladder surgery. The 77-year old congressman was chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A group of officials from each party will in early March choose their respective candidate for the May 18 special election -- the date of the state's already-scheduled primary election.
That means even a candidate who is not picked by the party officials as the candidate to serve for the remainder of Murtha's term could run in the primary election to become the party's nominee for the November race.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, that field includes former Murtha district director Mark Critz, former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer, former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel and Westmoreland County Commissioner Tom Ceraso. Murtha's widow, Joyce Murtha, who herself was once viewed as a potential candidate before declined to run earlier this week, yesterday endorsed Critz's bid.
On the Republican side, so far the field is limited to two names -- Bill Russell, a retired Army officer and the 2008 nominee, and area businessman Tim Burns.
At one point, it appeared that Russell might beat Murtha in the 2008 election after the long-serving congressman created a firestorm by describing many of his constituents as racists and polls in the race showed a dead heat. The Democratic party, however, poured money into the race in the closing days and Murtha ultimately prevailed by 16 percentage points -- the closest margin since his very first race for the seat in 1974.
Republican Party officials increasingly appear to be coalescing around Burns as their nominee, in part because of his ability to use his own fortune on the race. Russell has said that he will run in the primary even if he is not chosen by party officials for the special election.
Regardless of who emerges from each side of the aisle, the race appears increasingly headed toward a fight between a Democratic candidate with substantial political experience versus a Republican who has never held a political office. And the race could also represent something of a test of just how will treat Democratic candidates in in races for open seats.
In announcing their bids, the major Democratic candidates in the race have all mentioned continuing Murtha's legacy of serving the needs of the district as a major reason for their entry into the race. Part of Murtha's legacy is a district-wide acceptance of earmarks and other government support and so the standard GOP message of less government spending may not necessarily play well in the 12th, noted DiSarro.
And a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party argued that none of the potential Democratic candidates could plausibly be linked to the political problems in Washington since none have actually held office there.
Madonna said that while that dynamic could certainly benefit the Democrats in the race as voters may look for an experienced political hand that can continue to steer federal dollars to the district, it remains to be seen whether that sentiment will outweigh any broader voter discontent with Washington and by extension the party in power.
"I do think what we've seen in our state is the angst and the sense of disenchantment with the status quo and the direction or the state and the direction of the country," Madonna said. "I don't think the Democrats can be oblivious to that -- it's tightrope that they're going to have to walk. But my sense is that they're not going to move away from the Democratic Party's policy positions."