Pennsylvania Special Election Is a Reminder That Campaigns Do Matter

I’ve been joking recently that the political climate was moving into territory where it would be impossible for even the GOP to screw up the November elections. I was wrong. Tuesday’s special election to replace the deceased Rep. John Murtha, where a credible GOP candidate lost by almost ten points, proves that we should never underestimate the GOP’s ability to squander its advantages and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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First, lets dismiss with a few of the challenges the GOP faced in the special election. The district, Pennsylvania 12, is a gerrymandered mess, designed to elect a Democrat. There are twice as many registered Democrats in the district as Republicans. Although the Presidential election in 2008 was close, in prior years the Democrat candidate won the district in a walk.

The special election was scheduled on the same day as a hotly-contested Democrat primary, guaranteeing a boost in the party’s turnout. There was a gadfly “tea party” candidate auditioning for the role of spoiler and a somewhat complicated voting process where supporters of the GOP candidate, Tim Burns, had to vote twice; once in the GOP primary and again in the actual special election. And, the Democrat candidate had the full support of the left’s political machine and an army of supporters from Big Labor, in one of the few remaining districts where that matters.

All of these dynamics pointed to a close race. They do not, however, add up to the blowout suffered by Burns on Tuesday. Remember, Burns’ opponent, Mark Critz, was a former staffer for John Murtha. He actually campaigned that he was the economic development director for the former Congressman. He negotiated the earmark deals that cast an ethical cloud above the Congressman and filled a grand jury docket. He said he was a pro-life Democrat, as if that means anything in a post-Stupak world. Oh, and he said he opposed ObamaCare but wouldn’t vote to repeal it. It seems he was against it before he was for it.

Critz may have been confused on policy, but he was laser-sharp focused on what it took to win an election. He launched a ferocious attack on Burns that defined him early as some kind of overly rich outsider. (Never mind that Burns was a native of the district and, as a successful entrepreneur, was the only politician for miles to have actually created a job.) Critz convinced voters that Burns was somehow “not them” and couldn’t possibly understand their concerns. More impressively, Critz convinced voters that he, a DC Congressional staffer in charge of cutting earmark deals, was most in-tune with their hopes, dreams and fears.

Critz pulled off this hat-trick because Burns never responded effectively. He let Critz’s attacks take hold without pushing back. He brought a rusty, dull knife to a gun fight with a sniper. I’ve heard that Burns is going to try again in November, but unless he completely overhauls his campaign, he shouldn’t bother.

I’m not armchair quarterbacking here. I got involved professionally in politics and campaigns almost twenty years ago. I cut my political teeth in Illinois and the streets of Chicago, where campaigning is a blood-sport. There is at least a truckload of politicians I’ve sent into early retirement. (That’s an unambiguous good; less clear is the legacy of the people I’ve put into office.) I can recognize a winning campaign.

People I trust went out to PA-12 in the final days of the campaign to help build a ground game for the election. Their reports from the field were not encouraging. Worse, they were all too typical of many GOP campaigns I’ve seen over the years. Consultant-heavy efforts that spend, and waste, buckets of money but don’t have the stomach for the political fight. They can expertly talk about politics, but don’t have the vaguest notion of the heavy-lifting needed to win. (Yes, I know the names of the people involved in navigating Burns to a blowout loss. I won’t reveal their names here.)

There is at least a small ray of hope here. Special elections are singular events where national GOP entities like the NRCC can have an outsized influence. They can swagger into the room with a bucket of money and provide nervous, often first-time candidates with at least a dollop of reassurance. It simply isn’t possible for them to do that in dozens of races this Fall. Plenty of races untouched by them will still have a chance of winning. It is sad to say that one of the GOP’s best hopes for the Fall is the institutional limitations of it’s national party organizations, but it does give me some comfort.

No doubt, the national GOP is staffed by smart people. But, they live in a cocoon, and invariably try to apply a “one-size-fits-all” model onto every campaign. Worse, however, and almost never noted, is the short list of DC consultants they absolutely insist campaigns use in their race. (Consultants who will, of course, provide future employment to the GOP staffers.) I know these people. With a few exceptions I wouldn’t trust them to run my daughter’s campaign for class President, never mind an historic election where the direction of the country is at stake.

Campaigns DO matter. And the coming campaigns will matter more than most. I have no particular love for the GOP, but we simply have no choice but to help them win wherever possible this Fall. The current Democrat party is not the same party my grandparents supported. It has been co-opted by the far left and, left unchecked, will drive us into a fiscal ditch that would embarrass the Greeks.

And, so, it is left to us, the American public to right this ship. We rose up to oppose the far-left agenda of bailouts, stimulus and government health care, while the national GOP tried to ‘compromise’ their way into supporting them. We continue to oppose a financial “reform” bill full of sweet-heart deals for Wall Street while GOP Senators Corker, Snowe and Collins try to sell us out. We continue to fight against an oppressive cap-and-trade regulatory regime while GOP Senator Lindsey Graham tries to cut a deal and get into headlines. We continue to oppose a VAT tax, while former GOP Senator Alan Simpson tries to sweet talk us into accepting it.

We get the final lesson of PA-12. It is up to us. The coming elections are simply too important to leave in the hands of the GOP. We have to look to other groups, like Ensuring Liberty, Club for Growth and Freedomworks, among others, to lead us out of this mess. We have to find good candidates–and Burns WAS a good candidate–and support them and ensure they run the kind of campaigns we need to win. And, we have to remind the GOP that they did absolutely nothing to get us on the cusp of victory. We brought them to the dance, thank you very much. And, from here on out, we’ll call the tune.

Now, to work.


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