Scandal May Not Be an Issue in Race to Replace Tim Murphy

As the disgraced Republican takes his last House vote, the race to succeed him is all but officially underway.

Danielle Bernstein
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Danielle Bernstein
Oct. 12, 2017, 8 p.m.

Despite the circumstances surrounding Rep. Tim Murphy’s resignation last week, residents of Pennsylvania’s 18th District, which includes the southern part of Pittsburgh and some rural counties, may not alter what they look for in their next representative—at least, ideologically.

Even a salacious scandal—in which Murphy is alleged to have encouraged a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to terminate a pregnancy, despite his outspoken opposition to abortion—is unlikely to nudge this 93 percent white district that President Trump carried with 58 percent of the vote toward Democrats.

“Murphy obviously had some personal foibles which have caused him to resign, but I don’t think people were upset with his ideological bent or his voting record,” said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Republican campaign consultant. “I think people want a conservative, pro-life, pro-gun Republican who doesn’t have those personal issues.”

Among the current replacement options are state Sens. Guy Reschenthaler and Kim Ward and state Rep. Rick Saccone, who don’t appear to differ ideologically from Murphy or from one another.

At least three Democrats have also declared for the race, but Republicans remain confident they will hold the seat.

“The Democratic bench, really in all of Pennsylvania, has been completely wiped out,” said Mark Harris, a Republican campaign consultant whose firm represents Reschenthaler.

Still, The Cook Political Report has moved the race from “Solid Republican” to the more competitive rating of “Likely Republican,” reflecting that there is an opening.

Democrats could try to capitalize on Murphy’s scandal, but it may be difficult to attach his hypocrisy to other Republicans, given how specific it was to him personally. Even if Democrats took that route, they would still need a strong candidate to do so. State Senate seats in the area have all flipped for Republicans in recent years, leaving few viable local Democratic contenders.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has indicated it will track the race, but noted to Politico last week that it is a “Republican stronghold.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf must select the date of the special election for Murphy’s seat within 10 days of his resignation, which becomes official on Oct. 21. Rather than holding primaries, the state parties will pick their candidates.

For Republicans, this means county chairs will pick conferees from the four counties within the district: Westmoreland, which gets 80 conferees; Allegheny with 79; Washington with 50; and Greene with six. The conferees will then vote for their pick on a date yet to be determined.

“Right now, I think you’re going to have the battle break along geographic lines and seniority,” Nicholas said.

Ward, who is from Westmoreland County and has strong political connections, including a stint working for former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, is therefore “first among equals,” he said.

But while Westmoreland votes may skew toward Ward, Reschenthaler’s ties to the Harrisburg political establishment may prove stronger.

“The Allegheny chairman decided not to run for the seat, which leads me to believe that a lot of the Allegheny support will go for Senator Reschenthaler,” said a state Republican Party official. “Ward—she’s been in office longer than Senator Reschenthaler, but Senator Reschenthaler has risen to a leadership position in the state Senate faster.”

Saccone’s decision to give up on a challenge to Democratic Sen. Robert Casey in order to seek Murphy’s seat may make him appear opportunistic, something the conferees probably won’t appreciate, the official added.

If the race were up to voters, it would probably be fairly close, given the candidates’ similar profiles. But in the insider’s game set to unfold, a decisive factor in the conferees’ decision could be other state senators’ endorsements, in particular that of state Sen. Scott Wagner, who is running for governor and has worked with both Ward and Reschenthaler. Wagner has not yet indicated whether he will back someone.

Of the candidates, Saccone has been the most vocal in his disapproval of Murphy, saying when he announced his bid that he hopes to “restore dignity and honor” to the office.

Republican operatives, however, said Murphy’s indiscretion probably won’t play a major role in the election.

“It was a personal situation regarding the congressman, and it’s not something I think is likely to have much impact on the special election whatsoever,” Harris said.

“It was wrong, obviously, but now it’s a turning of the page,” the state party official said.

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