The Speaker's Lobby: Special Election Symbolism

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

17 May 2010

Symbolism is everything in politics.

But it's even more crucial in a special election.

Especially when the results of a special election will be seen as the bellwether of who could control the House of Representatives next year.

The eyes in the political world are trained on two special elections that will unfold this Tuesday in Pennsylvania and Hawaii. And both are overflowing in symbolism as to the election prospects for Republicans and Democrats this fall.

But at the end of the day, the outcome of one of these races could be an omen of what to expect in the midterm elections. And the other contest could prove to be little more than symbolism.

On Tuesday, voters head to the polls in southwestern Pennsylvania to elect a successor to the late Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA) who died unexpectedly in February. Republican Tim Burns and Democrat Mark Critz are locked in a race that handicappers believe will be decided in a photo finish. And in Hawaii, voters have been mailing in ballots for weeks in an election to succeed former Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI). Abercrombie resigned in February to run full-time for governor. Former Rep. Ed Case (D-HI) is pitched in a battle with Democrat Colleen Hanabusa and Republican Charles Djou.

Democrats and Republicans alike are prepped to contort (or diminish) the results of both races into allegories for November.

Consider the symbolism of Massachusetts voters electing Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) to succeed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). Brown's election jolted the American political scene. Democrats were on the verge of passing health care reform. And then one of the most-Democratic states in the country replaced the liberal lion of the Senate with a Republican. It was nearly enough to torpedo the entire health care effort. Political analysts interrupted Brown's victory as a referendum on the health care legislation as well as President Obama's legislative agenda. Many suggested that Brown's win was just a harbinger of things to come.

The race to succeed Jack Murtha is rife with parable. After all, the special election Murtha won in 1974 was a vanguard of what laid ahead for Republicans in that year's midterm election. Murtha won his seat by a little more than 100 votes. President Nixon was waist-deep in Watergate. And politicos argued that Murtha's election signaled bad things for Republicans in the fall.

They were right. Nixon soon resigned and the Democrats relieved the GOP of 43 House seats that November.

Murtha isn't on the ballot Tuesday. But his ghost is. And if Burns wins, Republicans are likely to portray their victory as a repudiation of the Democratic leadership in Washington and specifically of Murtha's way of doing business.

Few Republicans hold more contempt for any Democrat than Murtha. In many regards, Murtha epitomized what Republicans view is wrong with Washington. Many saw Murtha as corrupt. In 1980, Murtha was embroiled in the FBI's Abscam probe. FBI agents posed as phony, Arab sheiks and offered Murtha and several other lawmakers bribes. The Feds recorded Murtha on videotape suggesting he might be interested in taking a bribe. He never did and he was never arrested. In 2006, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) listed Murtha as one of the 20 most-corrupt members of Congress. The FBI and the House Ethics Committee also investigated Murtha and his ties to the now-defunct PMA lobbying firm. He was later exonerated.

As chairman of the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Murtha held sway over Pentagon spending. Government watchdogs hounded Murtha for his rampant earmarking, decrying him as the "King of Pork." Though he voted for the war in Iraq, Murtha authored a resolution to withdraw U.S. forces. He also accused U.S. Marines of killing Iraqi citizens "in cold blood" in an episode that became known as the "Haditha Incident."

Murtha was a longtime acolyte of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and was her personal favorite to serve as majority leader when Democrats won control of Congress in 2006. But House Democrats selected current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) over Murtha instead.

Republicans had their sights on Murtha in 2008. In fact, his district was the only Congressional district in the country to vote for Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) for president in 2004 and have Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) carry it four years later.

If the GOP is to win control of the House, it needs to flip Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District from Democratic to Republican hands. And the GOP believes scoring a win in a seat once held by Murtha will resonate in much the same fashion as Scott Brown's victory. If nothing else, some Republicans would love to see Pelosi squirm if she has to appear at the mock swearing-in at the Capitol for Republican Tim Burns. After all, Pelosi has played a prominent role in many of Burns' TV ads as his campaign attempts to tie the moderate Critz to the liberal speaker from San Francisco.

Furthermore, House Democrats have captured ten consecutive special elections. The last time Democrats lost a special was May, 2008. That's when Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) defeated Democrat Gilda Reed to replace Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) in the House. Certainly the "ten" figure is a little skewed as Democrats replaced other Democrats in safe Democratic seat. Take a look at the special election wins by Reps. Judy Chu (D-CA) and John Garamendi (D-CA). But the string of ten special election wins also includes some tough ones. Former Rep. Don Cazayoux (D-LA) won a special election in May, 2008 to replace former Rep. Richard Baker (R-LA). And two years ago, Rep. Travis Childers (D-MS) took the seat once held by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS).

A GOP win in Murtha's old seat would break that streak and give Republicans a significant boost. A Burns victory could be played as a repudiation of Murtha's pork belly politics and would highlight a recent narrative that's featured the political end for two other prominent Congressional appropriators: Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV).

This race is about switching directions. And the symbolism of Burns succeeding Murtha would signal that Democrats are on the run and it augurs bad things for the party this fall.

Meantime, the special election in Hawaii is a completely different creature than the Pennsylvania donnybrook.

Republicans have eyed Neil Abercrombie's seat for years. Plus, Republicans have made significant inroads into Hawaii. The state has twice elected Gov. Linda Lingle (R) to office. It's the first time Hawaii has had a Republican governor since the early 1960s. And barring any surprises, all polls indicate that Republican Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou will win. Even though the Democrats may secure as much as 60 percent of the vote.

Democrats are embroiled in an internecine war between former Congressman Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa.

Case is viewed as they only candidate who can defeat Djou. But many Democratic insiders in Hawaii can't abide him. In 2002, Case refused to stand aside when the late-Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI) passed away. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano (D) wanted Mink's husband to fill out the rest of her term.

Case further infuriated the Hawaii Democratic establishment when he challenged veteran Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) in the 2006 primary. Akaka defeated Case and won re-election to the Senate.

Democrats have been unsuccessful in getting Hanabusa to drop her bid. And last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) ditched its interests in the special election. DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said that committee felt it was better to expend resources in the fall rather in the special election.

Meantime, DCCC Chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) indicated that Democrats would hold the seat in November.

"It's a Democratic seat," Van Hollen said.

It may be a Democratic seat. And a general election field is usually more clear than what's afoot in the special. So Democrats are willing to punt right now and take their chances on the seat in the fall. When they may REALLY need that seat to hold control of the House.

But special elections are about symbolism. A Republican win is a Republican win. Especially when Democrats are on the ropes. If Djou wins, Republicans are sure to herald that victory as a sign of a growing tidal wave in November. They'll say it formed along the beaches of Waikiki, surged across the plains, splashed through Indiana and Ohio and could wash through the mines and mills of Johnstown and Washington, PA.

And don't forget that President Obama is a native of Hawaii. Expect Republicans to revel in the fact that they upended two Democrats on the president's home turf. The symbolism is critical to Republicans as Mr. Obama's approval ratings falter.

In short, Republican wins in both Pennsylvania and Hawaii are big deals. Both are symbolic of the potential sea change that awaits Democrats this fall.

But a Republican victory in Hawaii Tuesday is mostly symbolic. A win in Pennsylvania is pure substance.

-         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award, the Joan Barone Award and a National Headliner Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-         The Speaker's Lobby is a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists confer there during votes.