How the special election for Rep. Tim Murphy’s seat will work — and which party might win

The Southwest Pa. congressman plans to resign on Oct. 21.

Voters on Nov. 8, 2016 in Pittsburgh; Rep. Tim Murphy

Voters on Nov. 8, 2016 in Pittsburgh; Rep. Tim Murphy

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline ; Official congressional portrait

Battered by self-inflicted scandals, Rep. Tim Murphy is walking away.

The eight-term Republican lawmaker representing Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district will not seek re-election and won’t even wait to retire at the end of his term following revelations of an extramarital affair, texts that suggest the pro-life politician asked his mistress to have an abortion, and allegations that he mistreated staff.

Instead, Murphy will resign his post later this month, setting the stage for everyone’s favorite (ugh) political guidepost and reliably unreliable strength indicator — the special election.

But how will it all work, what happens next and who might win?

For these answers and more, The Incline spoke with political science professors at Pitt, Duquesne University and Carlow University and also checked in with Gov. Tom Wolf’s office and the Pennsylvania Department of State. They provided the following bullet points:

  • The governor will call and schedule a special election for Murphy’s seat within 10 days of Murphy’s Oct. 21 resignation.
  • The election must be held no less than 60 days after that.
  • Candidates will not be nominated by voters in a primary election. Instead they’ll be nominated by the parties themselves, in accordance with party rules.
  • Political bodies may nominate a candidate by circulating and filing nomination papers.
  • The winner of the special election fills the balance of Murphy’s term, which ends Jan. 3, 2019.
  • The deadline to register to vote would be 30 days before election day.
  • The special election will effectively be a general election, meaning voters of both parties — and third parties and independents — can cast unrestricted ballots.
  • Due to their vote totals last November, both the Green and Libertarian parties may put a candidate on the ballot by certificate, no nomination papers required.

Can the 18th be flipped?

Murphy’s district, the southwestern wedge on Pennsylvania’s congressional map, encompasses parts of Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington and Greene Counties. It is 95 percent white and so consistently Republican that the Democrats didn’t bother to run anyone against Murphy two elections in a row. Donald Trump carried the district in 2016 with 58 percent of the vote.

But even before Murphy’s implosion, Democrats had returned their attention to the seat amid falling support for both President Trump and members of Congress. This week’s scandal has likely only emboldened them, with the Cook Political Report moving its ranking of the 18th District from “solidly Republican” to “likely Republican” on the heels of Murphy announcing his plan to step down.

“There’s still some reason to believe the Democrats could do well and that the whole scandal could motivate people — and Democrats are already pretty active and engaged right now. So I guess it’s possible,” Meri Long, a professor of political science at Pitt, told The Incline.

Possible, but maybe unlikely considering Democrats have had their hopes dashed in a string of special election defeats this year. This includes Georgia, Kansas, South Carolina and Montana, where a GOP candidate’s extremely convincing Incredible Hulk impression — and the criminal case it spawned — did nothing to alter the outcome.

The Democrats haven’t taken all these losses at face value, though, at times holding up better-than-expected showings as signals of a turning tide.

There have also been outright wins for the party in special elections from New Hampshire to Oklahoma to Florida, some of them double-digit flips of districts Trump won in landslides.

District 18 voters by party

As of Oct. 2, according to the Department of State.
CountyDemocraticRepublicanOtherTotal voters
Allegheny 102,54482,59428,473213,611
Total voters by party231,234206,56561,576499,375

Whether Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district and Murphy’s soon-to-be-vacated seat are similarly “flippable” remains to be seen.

“The question will be: Can any Democrat garner enough enthusiasm and organizational support to really upend the district with the way it’s been set up and gerrymandered into its current state?” said Allyson Lowe, an associate professor of political science at Carlow University. “Can you mobilize enough discontent among voters to move moderates to the Democratic side and flip the seat?”

Meanwhile, the downside for both Republicans and Democrats here involves the lack of a primary to vet which candidates best resonate with their respective ends of the electorate.

“In the absence of that [primary election], you don’t get to see who’s a good communicator and a good fundraiser and who can assemble a good campaign team,” Lowe said. “And it will be a deeply subjective process when it’s inside the party because it’s loaded with a lot of internal workings and questions of ‘Who has been active in the party?’ and ‘Whose turn is it?’”

Lines of succession considered, Lowe said both parties have certainly already begun talking to everyone from local election officials to major funders to get a sense of “who longtime loyal members of the party, both organizers and donors, would be willing to support.”

The early pack of Republicans includes confirmed candidate and state senator Guy Reschenthaler, R-Jefferson, and rumored candidates like Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth. Democrats already had three people prepared to challenge Mr. Murphy next year — former Allegheny County councilman Mike Crossey, former Department of Veterans Affairs official Pam Iovino and emergency physician Bob Solomon — and could see more candidacies declared in the coming weeks and months.

Fast forward to election day and John Q. Public enters the picture, at which point the ramifications of the Murphy scandal may become even more evident or real. And as far as this election being a barometer of broader political sentiment ahead of the midterms is concerned, Lowe said the results may actually speak more to the particulars of the Murphy scandal than anything else.

“It’s hard to know whether a special election that is a byproduct of a scandal like this is really a bellwether election,” Lowe said. “What’s different about this is that it’s not a person resigning because of an affair or a divorce or suspicion of criminal activity or an active criminal investigation — those aren’t scandalous anymore. The crux of this scandal is the hypocrisy.”

That’s not to say Republicans can’t or won’t still win. It may be worth pointing out that Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a pro-life Tennessee Republican, withstood his own Murphy-esque abortion scandal in 2012 — and went on to win re-election.

In Murphy’s case, it’s unclear to what extent the Republican Party and its chosen candidate will share the blame for Murphy’s personal failings as they look to fill his seat. Some, like Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, say the answer is likely none at all.

“The scandal in the 18th is so personal and in a way so spectacular in its hypocrisy and dishonesty that I think voters will attribute it to Tim Murphy, the individual,” Ledewitz told The Incline. “I don’t think the scandal will have any legs at all. There are bigger fish to fry.”