It was well past the bedtime of 12-year-old Trent Burns Tuesday night. But around 11:20 pm, he walked to the front of the ballroom at the George Washington Hotel in Washington, PA, and tugged on a drawstring tethered to a fisherman’s net suspended from the rafters. Burns’ pull discharged a sea of nearly 90 red, white and blue balloons to the floor.
The TV live shots were wrapped up. The camera guys were unplugging cables and packing away their gear. The hotel wait staff collected spent bottles of Sam Adams and cleaned up bowls of pretzels and potato chips. The music was off. Stragglers chatted quietly in the corner.
The balloon drop is one of the most magical moments in American politics. It’s an iconic image, crafted exclusively for the television cameras. Insert candidate X as he or she waves to the throng after an election victory. The crowd roars. And then the balloons cascade from above as Aaron Tippin’s “Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly” crescendos.
None of that happened in Washington, PA, on Tuesday night in the race to succeed the late-Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA). Which is why Trent, son of Republican candidate Tim Burns, released the balloons, long after everyone left and his father conceded the seminal contest to Rep. Mark Critz (D-PA).
“Would you believe I didn’t prepare a concession speech?” asked the elder Burns as he took the stage under the balloons.
Burns probably didn’t draft a concession speech because he probably didn’t think he would lose.
And why would he have?
This is supposed to be a Republican year. The public is tired of universal health care and “job-killing” legislation designed to help the environment. They can’t stand the liberal president and the liberal Speaker of the House. Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) stunned everyone when he won the seat that long-belonged to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). Yes, voters are poised to “take the country back” just 16 months into President Obama’s administration.
“There isn’t a seat in America the Republicans can’t win,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) on NPR, intimating that he thought that there were “at least 100 seats” that could change hands.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) wasn’t as confident as Boehner.
He prognosticated to Politico that the GOP would pick up “somewhere between 40 and 65 or 70 seats” in the fall. After Critz dispatched Burns, Gingrich tempered his prediction to a 30 to 50 seat swing for Republicans.
Murtha’s district was the only region in the country that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) won in his 2008 presidential bid after Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) captured it in 2004. And despite a two-to-one Democratic voter registration advantage, polling in the district showed Burns and Critz running even in the final days.
If Republicans are to seize control of the House in the fall, this is the type of district they must win. A district that’s voted pro-labor for years but is socially-conservative. And it’s now struggling economically as the steel mills, glass factories and mines shut down.
This race was supposed to be a harbinger of things to come this fall.
Critz won handily.
But just as the polls closed at 8 pm in Pennsylvania Tuesday night, Burns arrived at the George Washington Hotel and cruised through the ballroom.
“I think it really is a bellwether,” he said of his contest with Critz. “That’s why you see all the attention placed on this race. I think this will give us a very clear picture and will send a very strong message that the American people think that Washington is taking this country in the wrong direction.”
“You don’t lose a special (election for a seat) that was held by Jack Murtha,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) after Critz’s win.
“They were very clear that this was a test-run of their strategy in November,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). “And the results speak for themselves.”
So what happened?
Political handicappers had a field day, ripping Republicans for dropping a seat they desperately needed to win.
“Even if they lost, they shouldn’t have lost by eight points,” opined Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report. He noted that the GOP failed to get critical independent voters to the polls.
“Critz’s polished ads depicted him in soft-tones, hard hats and steel mills, emphasizing his roots in the community, work on economic development and discomfort with liberal views on social issues. Burns’ rougher ads often showed him in front of black screens telling viewers that ‘Pelosi’s big government, liberal agenda is destroying America,’” Cook wrote.
“What we learned from this election, and I think hopefully the Republicans saw clearly. is that nationalizing the election, talking about Speaker Pelosi and President Obama was not as appealing to the public there as Mark Critz talking to them about their jobs,” Pelosi said.
This debacle comes as the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) poured nearly a tenth of its financial reserves into this race. And even though Republicans have recently outraised their Democratic counterparts, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has $27.3 million in the bank compared to the NRCC’s $11.4 million.
So was it a bellwether as Burns intimated hours before he called Critz to concede?
“I hope not,” Burns responded. “I really believe that this will still send a message. But maybe not as strong as I would have liked.”
Perhaps most telling was this line by Burns:
“I didn’t get into this race to win an election,” he said.
Still, Pelosi won’t rest on the Democrats’ laurels.
“Don’t read too much into election results, even when they’re in your favor,” she said.
Republicans eyed Murtha’s seat for years. They thought his pork belly politics and calls to end the war in Iraq would end his lengthy career. They tried to mine his alleged ethical lapses for political gain.
It never happened.
Then in the middle of Snowmageddon II, Murtha unexpectedly died from complications after surgery. Tim Burns was already running to succeed Murtha. But just days after Scott Brown’s monumental victory in Massachusetts, Republicans thought they had Democrats on the run.
“This moment is bittersweet because I wouldn’t be here if Jack Murtha wouldn’t have left us,” said Critz on the House floor Thursday, moments after succeeding his old boss in Congress. “I have the honor of following his footsteps.”
Following Murtha’s footsteps are important if Critz is to win re-election this fall, as he squares off again with Burns.
“Jack Murtha was a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat,” said DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). “Mark Critz ran as a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat.”
Upholding Murtha’s standard is critical. Immediately after his swearing-in, a battery of journalists peppered the neophyte Congressman with policy questions. One reporter asked Critz how he’ll vote on a controversial bill to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. I asked about a measure to extend tax breaks. The issue is contentious among many conservative Democrats because the package might not be paid for.
Tim Burns is monitoring Washington, DC from his listening post in Washington, PA.
“Even though he ran as a conservative, he will have a voting record by then that will prove (he’s) not,” wrote Burns on his campaign website. “And this summer, we will be working hard on this campaign, while he’s busy in Washington.”
Critz knows that, too. On Thursday, he indicated the November race “began yesterday.”
Special elections do not always foreshadow the general elections. But this is a seat the GOP had to have.
“There’s a difference between a challenging environment and a doomsday scenario where the Republicans are going to take back the House and run the table,” said Van Hollen.
If this race is a bellwether, it’s doubtful the “doomsday scenario” Van Hollen alludes to will come to pass. But he’s right about the “challenging environment.” Democrats know they’ll lose 25 to 30 seats this fall, regardless.
Republicans dropped the ball Tuesday night. They’ll certainly win their share of seats in November. But if there’s a repeat of Tuesday’s outcome in southwestern Pennsylvania, they won’t be dropping a shower of balloons on House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) as the next Speaker of the House.