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What PA-12 Means for PA-Sen, Pelosi’s Majority — And, oh, PA-12

The special election contest between Democrat Mark Critz and Republican Tim Burns to fill the Pennsylvania 12th district seat formerly held by Democrat John Murtha is looking like it will be a nail-biter tomorrow. As if that were not enticing enough, recent polling conducted in the district about preferences in the Democratic Senate primary between Joe Sestak and Arlen Specter adds another layer of interest.

Let’s get the Sestak-Specter angle out of the way first before turning to Burns-Critz. There’s not too much to say here, and besides Nate has already posted a full preview of the Senate primary below anyway. But it’s worth mentioning Public Policy Polling Tom Jensen’s blog post reporting that in the last poll taken in PA-12, Sestak led Specter by nine points, 44-35. “Among liberal voters in the district Sestak and Specter are actually tied at 44% each,” writes Jensen. “Sestak’s lead comes largely thanks to a 49-21 advantage among conservatives within the party who make up 26% of the primary vote in this district, almost equal to the 25% who identify as liberals.” This goes to show the kind of branding problems that can occur when one switches parties.

Turning back to Burns-Critz, the PPP poll over the weekend shows a tight race, with Burns leading by 1 point, within the margin of error. In its write-up, PPP notes that there has been “very little movement” since its previous poll a month ago: “The main difference is that negative campaigning has driven up both candidates’ negatives by 10-11 points. Where Burns’ favorability was a net +19 in April it’s now just +8. And where Critz was previously at a net +7 it’s now -6.”

Even more interesting are the underlying results, which demonstrate just how angry likely voters in PA-12 are. They disapprove of Barack Obama and his healthcare reform, view Nancy Pelosi rather unfavorably, and disapprove of the Democrats’ performance in Congress. But they also think Republicans in Congress are doing a bad job–by a slightly wider margin of disapproval than Democrats, in fact. I would not want to be an elected official almost anywhere in America right now.

And yet, PPP explains, somewhat confusingly, the contest is less about anger than about excitement levels between the two parties’ supporters:

“If Burns does pull out the victory on Tuesday night it will be more because of a continuing gap in interest between Democratic and Republican voters in the off year election than anything else. Critz is actually winning over more McCain voters (14%) than Burns is Obama voters (12%). This race is not an example of people who voted for Obama who are now unhappy with him and voting Republican. But those planning to vote on Tuesday report having voted for John McCain by 5 points in 2008, compared to his actual 1 point victory in the district. And among voters who say they’re ‘very excited’ to vote in this election, Burns has a 60-38 lead.”

At first blush that seems a bit puzzling, because if Critz is pulling more Republican partisans over to his side than Burns is Democrats to his, and the likely voter pool is overrepresented by McCain partisans compared to Obama partisans, Critz ought to be winning in a district Murtha won but McCain (very narrowly) carried in 2008.

That is, this was not a 60/40 Obama/McCain district from 2008, in which there are so many more Obama voters that Critz’ higher pull of McCain voters is outweighed by a much greater number (if smaller percentage) of Obama voters pulled in the other direction. In fact, here’s the most fascinating datum about PA-12: It is the only district in the United States that was both among the 83 so-called “McCain Democrat” districts–i.e., carried by McCain in 2008 but also by the House Democratic nominee–and yet was also carried by John Kerry in 2004. The 82 others were carried by both McCain and George Bush, which means PA-12 counter-trended Republican between 2004 and 2008–albeit slightly, I grant–and despite Obama’s much better performance nationally than Kerry’s four years earlier. (This may be more attributable to a general partisan backlash to Murtha, given all his problems, than a negative referendum on Obama relative to Kerry and/or Bush relative to McCain.) Of course, though trailing, Critz is not far behind and, when you take margin of error into account, he in fact be tied or ahead–thus accounting for the seemingly self-contradictory (or at least confusing) paragraph from PPP I quoted above.

In any event, as one of those 83 McCain-Democrat districts, PA-12 is precisely the sort of district Republicans have in their sights for 2010…and precisely the kind Democrats need to prove they can hold onto if they want to keep their majority or even maintain a workable majority in the House next year. So this race–despite all the noise Murtha’s saga introduces into the equation–is really one worth watching for November bellwether implications.