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Race to Succeed Murtha Divides Republicans

Murtha-russell-burns-480x288.jpg
Murtha-russell-burns-480x288.jpg

The late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and candidates Bill Russell and Tim Burns (house.gov, Bill Russell for Congress, Tim Burns for Congress)

In the final weeks of the 2008 campaign, Lt. Col. (ret.) Bill Russell got a taste of political superstardom. He’d been running against Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) for a year, inspired by the congressman’s opposition to the Iraq War. In a bad year for Republicans, he’d struggled to get traction. And then, two weeks out of the election, Murtha told a newspaper’s editorial board that he represented a “racist area” that wouldn’t support Barack Obama for president.

Online donations flooded in to Russell’s campaign. Polls showed him on the verge of knocking out Murtha, the chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and one of the senior members of the House. National media trekked into the rural, southwestern 12th district of Pennsylvania looking for a ray of Republican hope. In the end, Murtha rallied and won by 16 points — his lowest margin in decades, but enough to make the Russell surge seem like a mirage.

[GOP1]On February 8, Murtha died unexpectedly, setting up a May 12 special election in his district — the only one in America that voted for the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004 and the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008. It’s the sort of largely white, largely pro-life, conservative area where political reporters once found ticket-splitting “Reagan Democrats,” and the sort of district that needs to flip if Republicans are to take back the House of Representatives in 2010.

But taking this seat, say Republicans, won’t be as easy as it looks on paper. Democrats interested in the race include former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer and former Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel, as well as Murtha’s plugged-in district director Mark Critz. Republicans, however, are grappling with Russell and one other candidate — elected Republicans in the district have, so far, begged off on the expensive-looking race.

Some local party leaders, who will choose the nominee on March 11 in a private vote, are looking past Russell at Tim Burns, who has more personal wealth and deeper ties to the district. Russell isn’t budging, telling TWI that he’ll wage a primary campaign for his party’s nomination — also on May 12 — even if denied the special election endorsement. Base Connect, the campaign firm that has managed Russell’s fundraising in both cycles — taking a substantial amount of it back in fees — is working to convince conservative voters across the country that denying Russell the nomination would be tantamount to a betrayal of the base.

State Republicans aren’t buying it.

“Bill has, the last time I checked, $216,000 in the bank,” Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Rob Gleeson said in an interview with TWI. “You and I know that’s not a lot of money for a House race.”

Russell, in an interview with TWI, said that Gleeson had always written him off because, despite their partisan differences, he was “directly beholden financially to John Murtha” thanks to business that Gleeson does in Johnstown, the district’s biggest city and Murtha’s old political base.

“In the last campaign, he did nothing for me,” said Russell. “The party produced a slate card for voters with the names of the candidates on the Republican ticket, and my name was left off. When the presidential campaign stumped here — three times — I was never invited to speak at the rallies. So I have very little trust and very little faith in the state committee. I’ve been busy building support with the people of the district.” Having moved to the district after retirement, Russell argued that his work has erased the “carpetbagger” charge that Murtha clubbed him with.

Gleeson shrugged off the criticism. “Bill’s always had a chip on his shoulder,” he told TWI. “I knew John Murtha for 38 years, and he weakened our Republican ticket by being larger-than-life. I lost a state legislature race in 2008 because Russell was surging in the polls and Murtha turned out his forces to come out for the Democrats. He hurt me!”

Nonetheless, Russell’s campaign team has been driving home the message that to nominate another candidate would be to throw the seat to liberal Democrats. At last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Base Connect employees handed out “No NY-23 in PA-12″ buttons, comparing Russell’s race, and his quest to win over local Republican leaders, with the mess that ended up sparking an intra-Republican Party war and electing Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.). Freedom’s Defense Fund, a 527 group which shares office space with Base Connect and works for the same candidates, showed conference attendees an ad campaign it was running in the district, selling Russell as a tried and true conservative who deserved the nomination. The 527 group even paid Zogby and Associates for a poll — it revealed Russell as the choice of Republican voters by 30 points, although most voters had heard of neither candidate.

Neither the poll nor the ad has done anything to dissuade Tim Burns, a small businessman and Tea Party activist who told TWI that he was confident of lining up the Republican leadership support he needed to grab the special election nomination.

“Bill Russell sat in my house,” said Burns, “and told me that the reason he got into race was that he was upset about what John Murtha had said about the Marines at Haditha.” Murtha had accused eight Marines of complicity in a 2006 massacre in that Iraq town; seven were later cleared. “He moved into district to take on Murtha. I grew up in the district, in Johnstown. And I will outwork the competition. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

At CPAC, some Russell allies told TWI that the local party committees backed Burns, who made a fortune in pharmacy technology before selling the business in 2003, because he could spend enough money to help the rest of the ticket. Gleeson didn’t knock down that speculation.

“Tim Burns has indicated he can be a self-funder, to a certain point,” said Gleeson. “I told him he’d better get ready to cut some checks. Raising the money you need for a race like this in two months is, like, impossible.”

The possibility of a self-funded race by Burns appeals to Republicans who worry that Russell’s fundraising might not translate to expenditures in the district. According to FEC reports, Russell has raised more than $2.8 million in this election cycle but only has, as Gleeson pointed out, $216,000 in the bank. Base Connect — which changed its name from BMW Direct in 2009 — is well paid for its work. In the final quarter of 2009, Russell’s campaign paid $85,542.83 for “direct mail – creative” to Base Connect. It also paid $2490 to Electronic Reporting Systems, $64,017.79 to Legacy List Marketing, and $18,400.70 to MacKenzie and Company. All are headquartered at Base Connect’s offices at 1155 15th Street NW in Washington. But Russell told TWI that he had built on their work to find more than 5000 donors and 1700 volunteers inside the district.

“Base Connect has raised a lot of money with direct mail,” Russell said, “and in our district that’s the best way to get your message out. It’s incredibly gerrymandered.” There are, he pointed out, five different TV broadcast areas covering the district.

Typically, races for open seats draw more candidates than challenges against incumbents. But the absence of Murtha — despised by conservative activists, dogged by investigations for his relationships with lobbyists — has cooled down national enthusiasm for this race. Russell, who’d been a conservative hero at blogs like HotAir.com in 2008, isn’t attracting much attention for his new bid.

“He’s an appealing candidate,” HotAir.com blogger Allahpundit told TWI in an e-mail. “But between the loss of anti-Murtha sentiment and the fact that there’ll be so many more races attracting attention and conservative dollars this year, I’m skeptical that he’ll do especially well. I haven’t heard any chatter about him in awhile, either; the buzz around GOP veterans who are running for House seats all seems to belong to Lt. Col. (ret.) Allen West.

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