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Congressional District 18 

Tim Murphy (R) vs. Stephen O'Donnell (D)

Are you sick of political attack ads on TV? Tired of endless debates made up of nothing but talking points? Then you might want to consider moving to Congressional District 18, where you may hardly even notice the campaign to unseat incumbent Republican Tim Murphy.

click to enlarge Tim Murphy
  • Tim Murphy

Democrats have long hoped to unseat Murphy, a social conservative some partisans refer to as "Santorum Lite." And on paper, the three-term congressman should be vulnerable.

click to enlarge Stephen O'Donnell
  • Stephen O'Donnell

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 18th District, an awkward patchwork of communities stretching from the West Virginia border through Westmoreland County, by way of Washington and southern Allegheny counties. What's more, Murphy has long been dogged by allegations that he has used Congressional staffers to work on his campaign -- a violation of House ethics rules. In one celebrated 2006 incident, immortalized on YouTube, Murphy snatched documents supporting the allegations from KDKA-TV reporter Andy Sheehan.

In this year's Democratic primary, Stephen O'Donnell won a three-way race to challenge Murphy, pledging to bring such issues to the fore. "No one has the kind of support I do within the district," said O'Donnell, a successful businessman who has worked in real estate and in providing rehabilitative care.

O'Donnell certainly brings knowledge of policy, and he's an unapologetic progressive. He supports a single-payer system financed by a 3 percent tax evenly split by employers and employees. (That's less than workers and their employers pay in insurance premiums, he contends, and the revenue would create a pool to cover the uninsured as well.)

O'Donnell also supports increased spending on alternative energy, and his campaign points out that while Murphy sits on the House Energy and Commerce committee, he has sponsored only one energy-related bill this year: a resolution urging the president to overturn a ban on off-shore drilling. Given Murphy's post, and recent gyrations in oil prices, says campaign spokesman Harry Gural, "You'd think he'd be right in the middle of this. But he's got no legislation out there."

The challenger O'Donnell's campaign has also tried to keep the ethics question alive. At a Sept. 13 Bethel Park community event, the campaign charges, Murphy passed out campaign freebies in a parade -- and appeared shortly afterward at a tent emblazoned with the Congressional seal. Such behavior, O'Donnell's campaign alleges, violates House ethics rules that state "[a] single event cannot ... be treated as both political and official."

Through a spokesperson, Murphy declined to be interviewed for this story. His campaign agreed to answer a series of written questions, but did not respond, despite having a week and a half to do so. The campaign did issue a press statement calling the Sept. 13 allegations "misinformed," but not responding to them in detail. Instead, Murphy accused O'Donnell of trying to divert attention from "his 10-point plan to raise taxes"

O'Donnell's criticisms, along with Murphy's rightward tendencies on issues like abortion, have given the Democrat some backing. The political arm of Planned Parenthood backs him, as do the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, a pro-LGBT group. But that has not translated into much monetary support.

O'Donnell has raised nearly $350,000 as of Sept. 30, but most of that was money he loaned to his own campaign. Murphy, by contrast, has raised more than $1.5 million from outside sources.

"The whole thing is hopeless," says Don Friedman, a political consultant and longtime Democratic insider who worked on the campaign of Beth Hafer, one of O'Donnell's Democratic rivals. While District 18 has a Democratic edge on paper, its voters "trend heavily Republican in national races. It looks like a real ass-whooping for Obama out there" -- and that, Friedman says, means little support for other Dems on the ballot.

And Murphy has walked a careful line in his district, pairing social conservativism with flexibility on economic issues. He twice voted against a $700 billion Wall Street bailout that was supported by the White House. (If the government wanted to help the economy, he said, it should open up oil-drilling offshore and in protected wilderness areas -- a move he said would inject "trillions of dollars into our economy.")

At an Aug. 20 charity event, Murphy joked that both of Pittsburgh's newspapers had their endorsements -- for the other guy -- written "months in advance," because he was "too conservative for the Post-Gazette, too liberal for the Tribune-Review." In fact, Murphy's voting record has earned an 83 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, meaning that on key issues he votes for the conservative position four out of five times. But he has found a political sweet spot that has garnered him endorsements from both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

While O'Donnell has received backing from a handful of labor groups, including the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, it's dwarfed by Murphy's backing from organizations like the Communications Workers of America, who give 97 percent of their money to Democrats.

Why would unions back a Republican?

Such endorsements are "few and far between," says Jack Shea, who heads the Allegheny County Labor Council (which also endorsed Murphy). "But when somebody is with you on the issues that matter, you have to stick with them." Shea says Murphy's record on labor has improved dramatically recently: He cites Murphy's support for the Employees Free Choice Act -- a measure that would make it easier for unions to organize, and that is bitterly opposed by business -- as a prominent example.

"It would be foolish not to think [the election] had something to do with that," Shea says. "But a lot of Republicans haven't changed their position. Tim did."

Still, O'Donnell isn't giving up. Campaign polling over the summer, says Gural, "shows that Murphy is very unpopular, and that he is very vulnerable. People really didn't know who Steve was, and that's the problem for any challenger, to get their name up there. But we've got great word of mouth, and a great volunteer base. Steve is out doing door-knocking every day."

As for Murphy's union support, Gural says, "They are making a political calculation. If they think it's more likely Murphy will win, they don't want to be caught outside. You have to be brave to step out with the underdog."

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