Buoyed by an electorate that is exceptionally sour on national Democrats, Republican Tim Burns has a 44-41 lead over Democrat Mark Critz in the special election to replace John Murtha in the House.
It's a rare election these days where both candidates are viewed pretty favorably in the district. 45% of voters have a favorable opinion of Burns to 26% who view him unfavorably and Critz is in positive territory as well with 41% of voters saying they like him to 34% who do not.
Tipping the balance in a race where each candidate is pretty well liked may be the way voters in the district feel about a number of key Democrats- Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Arlen Specter, and Ed Rendell are all exceptionally unpopular. Obama's approval rating is just 33% to 57% disapproving, only 24% have a favorable opinion of Pelosi to 64% with an unfavorable one, 28% of voters approve of Specter to 60% who don't, and 24% give Rendell good marks to 63% unhappy with him. Those aren't the sorts of reviews that bode well for the district electing another Democratic politician.
Although the district is exceptionally Democratic- 55% in this sample- these are not what you would think of as mainstream national Democratic voters. Only 50% of the party's voters in the district approve of Obama's job performance and just 43% support the health care bill passed last month. There are more Democrats in the district who have an unfavorable opinion of Nancy Pelosi than a positive one.
Because of that it's not surprising that Burns is winning over 22% of the Democratic vote compared to Critz's 10% of the Republican vote. Burns also has a 51-31 lead with independents, although there are fewer of them in this district than most.
Republicans have the enthusiasm on their side in this race as well. 57% of GOP voters say that they are 'very excited' about voting in the special election while just 38% of Democrats express that sentiment. There's been some speculation that more closely contested primaries on the Democratic side for Senator and Governor might give the party a turnout edge but that will more than likely be evened out by Republicans being more excited about the special election.
We find a likely electorate that voted for John McCain by seven points in 2008, in contrast to his single point victory in the district. That six point shift in a Republican direction is consistent with what we found for the electorate in the Massachusetts Senate election in January, but it shows Critz could make this even closer by getting Democratic voters out to the polls in the same proportions that were seen in 2008.
It's hard to see this race as anything but a tossup at this point. It's very close and there are a fair number of undecided voters still remaining. Critz is clearly doing an effective job of distancing himself from national Democrats and is polling remarkably well given the way voters in the district feel about his party. Still Burns has the national political climate and a more fired up party base on his side, and that gives him a very good chance to flip this seat to the Republicans next month. It's going to be an interesting one to watch unfold.
Full results here