Image: Mark Critz
Keith Srakocic  /  AP
Mark Critz was an aide to the late Rep. John Murtha.
updated 5/18/2010 11:25:42 PM ET 2010-05-19T03:25:42

An aide to the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha won a special election to fill the final months of his boss's term — a nationally watched contest considered a potential bellwether for this fall's midterm election.

In a tight race to the end, Mark Critz brushed back a strong challenge from Tim Burns, a Republican businessman. The GOP had hoped to catch the seat Murtha held for 36 years by playing off growing opposition to congressional Democrats, tea party-driven discontent and unhappiness with President Barack Obama's health care law.

Critz, a longtime district aide, played up his ties to his old boss while fending off GOP criticism that he was a career bureaucrat who would blindly follow House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and liberal Democrats in Congress.

He stressed he was "pro-life, pro-gun" and determined to help a region hard-hit by job losses — Pennsylvania's statewide unemployment rate is 9 percent — policy positions that mirrored Murtha's. Democrats had a 2-to-1 edge over Republicans in voter registration in the socially conservative district.

Murtha, who was the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, died in February at age 77 of complications from gallbladder surgery, setting off a dash to the special election.

Critz had 53 percent of the vote compared with nearly 45 percent for Burns with 70 percent of precincts reporting, dealing an early blow to GOP hopes of taking control of Congress this fall.

Both candidates will square off again in the fall after each man easily won his respective party's primary. Burns' campaign has said the Republican was in the race through November regardless of the special election outcome.

The race was considered so close and so important that Democrats called on former President Bill Clinton to campaign for Critz, while Republicans turned to U.S. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts to boost Burns. Vice President Joe Biden and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich were among other political notables who made campaign cameos.

But Burns, 42, of Eighty Four, could not follow the script Brown wrote earlier this year in Massachusetts. Brown won a special election for the Senate seat held by another high-profile Democrat, the late Edward M. Kennedy.

Each party poured in nearly $1 million for advertising, most of it negative. A tea party supporter, Burns disagreed with Critz's camp painting the Republican as an "out-of-touch millionaire" more concerned with tax loopholes for corporations and the rich.

Critz, 48, capitalized on a key endorsement from Murtha's widow, Joyce Murtha, and his ties to his hometown of Johnstown, a Murtha stronghold. Numerous projects and buildings in the region bear Murtha's name including a highway, an airport and a health care facility.

Recent voting trends also made the race unpredictable. Republican Sen. John McCain won the district in the 2008 presidential election after Democratic Sen. John Kerry carried it four years earlier.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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