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Challenge ahead for Tim Murphy

Tom Fontaine
| Friday, Jan. 27, 2012

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy has never been seriously challenged in five previous runs for Congress.

Now, the Republican from Upper St. Clair is under attack with conservative groups branding him a liberal and a Democrat challenger saying Murphy is too tied to partisan politics. Another potential danger, observers say, is that the reapportioned 18th District will include new voters with no loyalties to the incumbent.

"The congressman has not had to bloody his knuckles on doors before. This time, he's got some significant opposition," said political analyst Gerald R. Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh professor.

Murphy has never been opposed in a congressional primary. His closest November race was a 16-point win.

Murphy campaign staffers, however, said the congressman has never taken a race lightly and has worked in Washington to represent constituents' interests, not his own -- helping to explain his lopsided wins.

This year, he faces opposition in the GOP primary from Evan Feinberg, 27, of Upper St. Clair, a former aide to Republican Sens. Tom Coburn and Rand Paul who worked as a policy researcher with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

To date, one Democrat has entered the race: Democratic Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi of Buffalo Township, a former county sheriff and state trooper who served in the Marines.

"There are two liberals in the race and one conservative," Feinberg said.

The conservative group Club for Growth, formerly headed by Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, has run four TV ads this month criticizing Murphy's record. It points to votes to support earmarks, bail out mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, eliminate secret ballots in union elections and expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Each ad refers to Murphy as a "liberal."

The U.S. Congress Votes Database shows Murphy has voted with the GOP 92 percent of the time since last January. Six of the state's other Republican congressmen did so more often, while four did less frequently. In the Senate, Toomey, regarded by some as the standard-bearer for conservatives, has voted with the GOP 90 percent of the time in that span.

Club for Growth spent $106,622 on its Murphy-related ads, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, but the interest group hasn't decided whether it will endorse Feinberg.

Observers said Maggi is hoping to benefit from a rugged GOP primary. Although Maggi said Murphy is in "lockstep" with his party, of himself he said, "I'm a Democrat, but I'm very moderate and I'm very much my own man. I'm not going to be led around by the nose by anybody. I'm pro-life, pro-gun and fiscally conservative."

The National Republican Congressional Committee, however, noted a day after Maggi declared his candidacy that he supported a 22 percent tax increase in one of his first acts as commissioner.

That vote doesn't appear to have harmed Maggi locally, where he was top vote-getter in the last three commissioner races.

"I don't know much about Murphy, but Maggi is a down-to-earth guy. I think Murphy will have problems," said Clyde Yater, 69, of Canton outside Washington, who is new to the 18th District.

Observers see a challenge ahead for Murphy.

"There are enough cracks in his record to draw ire from those on the right who demand absolute orthodoxy in their votes," said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

"At the same time, given the unbelievably partisan nature of politics right now, when someone who is considered middle-of-the-road votes with his party 92 percent of the time, there is room for Democrats to attack him as being a partisan operative who is contributing to the gridlock in Washington," Borick said.

Murphy said he will "continue to make my top priority working on issues that matter to Southwestern Pennsylvania families," such as repealing President Obama's health care legislation, cutting spending and creating jobs in the energy sector. Murphy is a member of the House Energy Committee.

Harrisburg-based GOP strategist Charlie Gerow said he believes Murphy will put together a strong campaign.

"When members of Congress are challenged, and they don't take it seriously, they are often called former congressmen," he said.

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