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Murtha victorious in tough contest

| Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008

Veteran Rep. John Murtha emerged from a hard-fought campaign to defeat Republican challenger William Russell.

In a race that gained national attention, the Johnstown Democrat defeated Russell, 44, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, to hold his seat for an 18th term. With 65 percent of the precincts reporting, Murtha had 57 percent of the vote and Russell 43 percent, according to unofficial returns.

Murtha, 76, the ninth most senior representative in the 435-member U.S. House, will continue to represent the sprawling 12th District, which includes Greene County and parts of Allegheny, Armstrong, Cambria, Fayette, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties. He has served since 1974.

Unofficial tallies in Armstrong County show Murtha with 48 percent of the vote to Russell's 51 percent.

"We have a lot to do," Murtha said. "There are going to be a lot of difficult votes in the next two years."

Russell, who lived in Alexandria, Va., before moving to Johnstown, said he'll remain in the district and run again in two years.

"This was a fight that had to be fought," Russell said. "We had a vision in our campaign of what this district could be and what the nation could be."

Polls predicted trouble for Murtha after he said his district is "racist" and "really redneck." Critics pounced, comics ridiculed and friends -- including former President Bill Clinton -- rushed to his defense to deflect his public comments that some voters would not support Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama because he is black.

Murtha, a retired Marine and decorated Vietnam veteran who opposes the Iraq war, also drew the ire of critics and angered veterans when he said that Marines killed innocent Iraqi civilians "in cold blood" in Haditha in 2005.

Nevertheless, his detractors hit a roadblock when they came up against the lawmaker's record of bringing money to a district hit hard by the demise of the coal and steel industries. He has secured 20,000 jobs by attracting defense contractors and other companies in the fields of health care, robotics and software engineering.

Murtha, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has drawn upon his first-hand knowledge to advise presidents of both parties on military and national security issues and has led several election monitoring delegations in foreign nations.

Russell, a third-generation soldier whose father was a career military officer, banked on his 28-year military record to define his campaign as a "call to patriotism and conservative action" marked by a movement for change. He criticized Murtha's practice of accepting earmarks -- an estimated $870 million for his district in the past six years alone.

Although Murtha entered the race with a bigger war chest, Russell outpaced the incumbent in fundraising -- nearly $1.6 million to Murtha's $469,340 -- during the quarter from July through September. However, contributions picked up in recent weeks after Murtha put out an urgent plea for $1 million, according to The Hill, a Washington newspaper.

The last-minute push apparently worked.

"I got criticized about a lot of different things, and I didn't respond soon enough," Murtha said. "That won't happen again."

3rd Congressional District

In the state's northwest corner, seven-term Republican Rep. Phil English was trailing Democratic political newcomer Kathy Dahlkemper, a business owner who opposes abortion rights, in what was expected to be a very tight race. The 3rd Distsrict reaches from Erie into the northern and middle portions of Armstrong County

With 89 percent of precincts reporting, Dahlkemper had 125,568 votes, or 52 percent, and English had 117,934, or 48 percent. English retained support in Armstrong County, polling 57 percent to Dahlkemper's 43 percent, or 7,447 to 5,618 votes.

A social conservative who is a centrist on economic issues, English emphasized his work on behalf of the steel industry, while Dahlkemper said as a business owner she could better sell the region.

English had a long career working in politics before taking office, having helped run former Sen. Rick Santorum's first campaign.

Democrats saw Dahlkemper as an especially strong candidate in the swing district, which backed President Bush in the last two presidential elections but has seen rising Democratic voter registration.

English was elected in 1994, the year of the "Republican Revolution." He filled the seat vacated by Tom Ridge, who ran for governor.

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