Special congressional elections will take place next month to fill vacancies created by the death of Rep. John Murtha (D-PA-12) and the resignation of Rep. Neil Abercromie (D-HI-1). Republicans have excellent candidates in both districts and have decent chances to win both elections. But there are significant tactical differences in the two situations, and Republicans should not treat the districts the same.
The May 18 election in PA-12 has important long-term consequences for both parties and should be the focus of intense Republican efforts to win the seat. Sporting a Cook Partisan Voting Index of R+1 (meaning that the district’s average vote in the past two presidential elections was one percentage point better than the country as a whole), PA-12 is a classic example of an otherwise winnable Republican district that has been held for years (in this case since 1974) by a personally popular Democrat incumbent.
This special election pits Democrat Mark Critz, who had been Murtha’s district director, against Republican businessman Tim Burns, in an “insider vs. outsider” contest that is a virtual metaphor symbolizing the upcoming 2010 battle for control of Congress. Like the Massachusetts special election of Republican Scott Brown earlier this year, this election will provide significant momentum for November to whichever party is victorious. And whoever wins will also have an enormous advantage in keeping the seat in November.
Both parties will pour all the resources they can into the Pennsylvania special election. Republicans across the country should invest in their 2010 success by contributing to the Burns campaign. I myself have already done so, and I urge my readers to do the same. (Contribute here.)
The Hawaii special election four days later is a different story. While Republican candidate Charles Djou is well qualified with a demonstrated history of electoral success (an elected member of the Honolulu city council and former minority leader in the state house of representatives), a Djou win in the special election would probably have only short-term significance. The district is solidly Democratic, with a Cook Partisan Voting Index of D+11, a full 13 percentage points worse than the Pennsylvania district. No current Republican congressman represents a district more Democratic than D+7. The only reason this seat is even in play is a quirky Hawaiian election law that pits all candidates from all parties together in a single “jungle” election decided by mere plurality. There are two major Democratic candidates splitting the Democrat vote nearly evenly, while Djou has Republican votes pretty much to himself. The latest Daily Kos Research 2000 poll gives Djou just 32% of the likely vote, which nevertheless is good enough to give him a 4-point lead over Democrat Ed Case, who is running just one point ahead of fellow Democrat Connie Hanabusa. Come November, however, a traditional election pitting the winner of a Democratic primary against the winner of a Republican primary will take place, an election that even an incumbent Republican Djou would have difficulty winning.
While a Djou win in the special could give congressional Republicans better chances of winning close House votes that have eluded them this session, Djou’s chances of being part of the Republican takeover of the House in November are slim. While Djou’s D+11 district is not as inhospitable as Massachusetts (D+12), typically higher Democrat turnout in general elections would make Djou’s reelection more challenging than Scott Brown’s feat in a special.
So, while Republicans and conservative independents should wish Djou the best and rout sincerely for his success next month, their money and effort are better spent in Pennsylvania.