This race should serve notice to Democratic officeholders everywhere that no seat is safe and that voters will not accept business-as-usual. ~Michael Steele

PA 12 simplified: GOP tried to nationalize the race. Health care, Obama, etc. Democrats localized it (and the Dem candidate ran against Obama). And the DCCC put 200 people on the ground there in the last week. Meaning: Dems can be competitive in races if they run the right candidates the right way. And Republicans aren’t gonna cruise to victory in the fall. ~Marc Ambinder

There are many things about the PA-12 special election that are unique to that race and district, but one thing that ties it to many of the other Republican special election losses over the last three years is the party’s obsession with nationalizing House races that might have conceivably been won by appealing to local issues and concerns. In NY-23 we saw Hoffman scoffing at “parochial” issues, and in NY-20 Tedisco ran a disastrously bad campaign that frittered away all of his advantages as a well-liked local representative and re-made himself into a robot repeating the national party’s message. Before that we saw several failed attempts in IL-14, MS-01 and elsewhere to run against “Pelosi-Reid,” when the real competition came in the form of effective candidates with strong local connections. As I said last year in connection with the NY-23 race:

Something I don’t understand about the national GOP’s elevation of the NY-23 race to such a high profile is why they think nationalizing House races favors them. Nationally, the GOP remains toxic and its party ID continues to be very low. Nationalizing the race gains the GOP nothing in a traditionally supportive district, but it potentially saddles their preferred candidate with all of their baggage from the past several years. It is also mimicking the absolutely failed Republican tactics of almost every special election of the last three years. With depressing regularity, GOP attack ads have warned voters against such-and-such a candidate siding with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, when most people outside of Washington don’t know and couldn’t care who these people are.

There are two major problems with the Republican approach to these House elections. The first is that they tend to ignore or dismiss the interests of the specific district where they are competing in order to make a statement about national party agendas. The national GOP wants these elections to be mandates against Pelosi/Reid’s agenda or Obama’s agenda, and the Democratic committees and party leadership are more concerned with winning the election contests. The second problem is that they don’t seem to understand that even in districts where Obama is not particularly popular and where most voters did not support him in 2008, such as PA-12, most voters are not interested in vindicating a pre-scripted anti-Obama narrative. So long as the Democratic candidates can present them with a more appealing message of continued government funding and the promise of economic support, they are not automatically going to rally behind the candidates of the more unpopular, discredited party.

Obviously, Steele has to spin a loss in a potentially winnable open seat as best as he can. The reality is that the NRCC sank $1 million in a district carried narrowly by McCain and no longer represented by a veteran Congressman and the GOP candidate managed to win a little over 44% of the vote in a low-turnout special election. That is slightly better than the Republican nominee Russell did in 2008 in a much smaller electorate that ought to have favored the Republican. Burns and Critz will face each other again in November, but it will be that much harder to dislodge Critz once he is a member of the House. Far from showing that no seat is safe, it showed that when it came time to deliver on overblown predictions of massive Republican gains this year the GOP failed. I don’t expect Republican leaders to announce this to the world, but if they are to have any chance of coming close to their goals of winning back the House they have to contest House elections differently than they have been doing over the last few years.

P.S. Nagourney reports on the special election:

Tom Davis, a former Republican House member and top party campaign strategist, saw the win by Democrat Mark Critz, a former aide to Mr. Murtha, over Republican Tim Burns as a serious blow to the Republican claim to be within reach of the 40 seats needed to recapture the House.

“If you can’t win a seat that is trending Republican in a year like this, then where is the wave?” asked Mr. Davis, who said Republicans will need to examine what went wrong. “It would be a huge upset not to win this seat.”