Editor's Note: In the final 100 days before Election Day, CNN has been profiling one race at random each day from among the nation's top 100 House races, which we've dubbed "The CNN 100." Read the full list here . Today's featured district is:
Pennsylvania 12 – Rep. Mark Critz is seeking his first full term
Primary: May 18, 2010
Location: Southwestern Pennsylania
Days until Election Day: 57
The death of 18-term Democratic Rep. John Murtha earlier this year created an opening for Republicans to take over his socially conservative southwestern Pennsylvania district. Despite predictions that the Democrats' 36-year lock on this seat would come to an end, long-time Murtha aide Mark Critz prevailed in the May special election to succeed his late boss, defeating Republican businessman Tim Burns by a surprisingly comfortable 8-point margin. This November, Critz and Burns will face off against each other for a full term, their second head-to-head match-up for this seat in just six months.
During the special election campaign, Burns attempted to tie Critz to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the national party's policy agenda, but Critz countered by pointing out his opposition to the Democratic health care reform plan and describing himself in campaign ads as being "pro-life and pro gun." After only three months in Congress, Critz has demonstrated a willingness to buck his party on some key votes. He was one of only 19 Democrats to vote against the Wall Street reform package.
Burns outspend Critz in the special election, $1.7 million to $1.3 million, after loaning himself $380,000 from his personal funds. The two candidates began the general election campaign evenly matched in terms of campaign warchests. As of mid-year, Critz had $166,000 in the bank compared to $163,000 for Burns.
Pennsylvania's 12th district is located in western Pennsylvania, stretching in a seemingly-random series of squiggles from the extreme southwestern corner of the state to Murtha's long-time base of Johnstown. Much of the area has deep roots in the coal and steel industries and helps define the term "Rust Belt," but there are many scenic areas, including the Laurel Highlands, where well-to-do families from the Pittsburgh area have traditionally had vacation homes. In 2008, Murtha made headlines when he told a local newspaper that there was "no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area."
The region has become increasingly competitive in presidential elections over the last ten years. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore carried a similarly drawn district with 55 percent, while George W. Bush received 44 percent. Four years later, Bush improved his performance in the newly drawn district but still lost to Democrat John Kerry, 51 percent to 49 percent. In 2008, Republican John McCain barely edged President Obama here, 49.4 percent to 49 percent. Pennsylvania's 12th is the only congressional district in the country to have voted for Kerry in 2004 and for McCain in 2008. Despite this increasingly Republican-friendly voting trend, Democrat Critz defeated Republican Burns in the May special election 53 percent to 45 percent.
Though Critz is coming off a decisive win, the 12th district has become too much of a swing region to be taken for granted, especially by a freshman Democratic incumbent in a midterm cycle that historically has punished members of the party holding the White House. Burns is a credible candidate who has reached into his own pockets in the past to help fund his campaign and could benefit from a national Republican wave. Nonetheless, Critz has taken steps to insulate himself from the national Democratic party, which may explain why he is not one of the GOP's top targets this year.
- CNN Polling Director Keating Holland contributed to this report.