By: Michael Luo
WAYNESBURG, Pa. — Sam Boyd has been a Democrat his entire adult life, just like many here in this mostly rural, economically impoverished southwestern corner of the state, where the party’s roots run as deep as the coal underfoot.
But in Tuesday’s closely watched special election to succeed the late Representative John P. Murtha in the state’s 12th Congressional District, Mr. Boyd, 65, is leaning toward casting his vote for the Republican candidate, Tim Burns, a millionaire former software entrepreneur who got involved in politics through the Tea Party movement.
“I’m for Burns for the reason I was for Obama,” said Mr. Boyd, a retired general contractor who served as an unpaid campaign liaison for Mr. Murtha in his county. “I want change.”
Whether or not Mr. Burns pulls off a victory over his Democratic opponent, Mark Critz, in what polls suggest is a competitive race, voters like Mr. Boyd embody the nightmare scenario for Democrats nationally: that even committed Democrats will turn on their party.
Both parties have poured money and political star power into the contest, hoping to shape the political narrative heading into the fall.
Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, headlined a rally for Mr. Burns in Washington, Pa., on Friday. (Mr. Boyd got to meet Mr. Brown afterward and shake his hand.) Former President Bill Clinton was scheduled to stump for Mr. Critz in Johnstown on Sunday.
Democratic leaders hope that improved economic news will help Mr. Critz, as well as their party nationwide. But that may not be enough to convince voters like Mr. Boyd, who only a year and a half ago was putting up Murtha and Obama signs across Greene County, the southwestern-most part of this sprawling district.
Mr. Boyd’s path to discontent since then traces the bumpy legislative path in Washington, from the auto bailouts to the stimulus plan to the passage of the health care overhaul.
His decision on Tuesday, as well as that of other voters like him in this heavily Democratic district, represents a test of Republicans’ ability to make the midterm elections a referendum on President Obama and the Democratic-led Congress.
Mr. Boyd, who first joined his local Young Democrats club as a 14-year-old, says he now regrets voting for Mr. Obama, even though he hastened to add that he still found the president personally appealing.
“I just think I bought the sizzle, not the steak,” he said.
Voters here are grappling with the end of the 36-year reign of Mr. Murtha, who died in February. Mr. Murtha, a legendary master of the earmark process, used his powerful position as the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee’s military subcommittee to channel hundreds of millions of dollars to his sagging district. That bounty helped him maintain a stranglehold on power over a region pocked with shuttered steel mills and factories.
Even here in Greene County, a two-hour drive from Johnstown, where Mr. Murtha used to live and a place he treated as the hub of his district, the signs of his munificence are everywhere, from Murtha Road, where the local Wal-Mart is located, to the defense contractor that anchors the county’s technology park.
But now, there is clearly an opening for Republicans. Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in this district by more than 2 to 1, but the Democrats who populate the area tend to be conservative, like Mr. Boyd, especially when it comes to social issues. With mostly white, blue-collar voters, it is also the kind of district that gave the Obama campaign fits. It is the only district in the country that voted for the Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, in 2004 and for the Republican nominee, John McCain, in 2008.
Congressional committees on both sides are on pace to spend about a million dollars each on the race to replace Mr. Murtha. Outside groups have also poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race. Mr. Burns has lent his campaign $380,000 out of his own pocket.
Advertisements by Mr. Burns, as well as the National Republican Campaign Committee, have almost invariably sought to tie Mr. Critz, who was Mr. Murtha’s district director, to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is extremely unpopular in the district, and to a lesser extent President Obama, whose approval ratings here are similarly abysmal.
“It’s going to come down to, do you think country is on the right track under this administration or the wrong track?” Mr. Burns said in an interview at his campaign headquarters in Washington, Pa. “I know the majority of the people in this district are not happy with Washington.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Critz has sought to draw a bright line between him and national Democratic leaders, saying he would have opposed the health care bill, as well ascap-and-trade climate legislation that is viewed coolly in this area where coal mining remains a way of life. He has tried to focus on local issues, describing his job with Mr. Murtha as that of economic development director and arguing that he can bring jobs to the area.
“This campaign is not about Washington, D.C.,” he said during a debate this month with Mr. Burns. “It’s about Washington, Pa. It’s about Washington Township, Cambria County.”
Some voters have decided that Mr. Critz, with his knowledge of the district and the Byzantine art of securing federal money, would be a better champion, even if the earmarking process that has benefited them so much is now roundly vilified.
“Politics is not a clean game, but you better know how to play the game,” Buzz Walters, a friend of Mr. Boyd who runs a tire shop in nearby Rogersville, said on a recent morning as the political talk among several friends grew heated.
Interviews with some two dozen voters in the district, most of them Democrats, found varying degrees of approval or disenchantment with Washington. Some resented efforts to turn the race into a broader referendum, saying they would make up their minds as they always have, based on the experience or character of the candidates. Others said they were so disgusted at politics in general that they were planning to stay away from the polls.
(The state’s primary is also being held on Tuesday, forcing the candidates to battle on two fronts: winning the special election and fending off challengers from their own party so they can run for a full term in November).
It is the angry talk among longtime Democrats, albeit ones who often sounded decidedly like Republicans, that is potentially most worrisome to party leaders.
“I just think we need a better balance of power in Washington,” Jim Stephenson, 62, a retired electrician, said at the Airport Restaurant here, where both he and Mr. Boyd often spend their mornings.
With Mr. Boyd, the Obama administration’s communications challenges are clearly evident. He said he was not necessarily opposed to the health care law but would “like to know what’s in the thing,” calling it “smoke and mirrors.” As for the stimulus plan, he said he only knew what he could see. And, he said, he had not seen the economy improve.
It is the growing deficit that riles him the most, he said. Rumors of a potential second stimulus package last year caused him to sink into a depression for several days. With four grandchildren, he said he was worried for their future.