There is no doubt that U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, has a big statistical edge in this year’s election: Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in his 12th Congressional District.

In addition, Democrat-heavy Cambria County is Murtha’s home turf.

But there are statistics that paint a more telling picture of Murtha’s dominance – a long list of election returns.

An analysis of those numbers shows a politician who – from his early years in Washington to the present – has been nearly unstoppable at the polls. Even during times of controversy or scandal, Murtha historically has been a sure thing when November rolls around.

That long-term invincibility could not have been forecasted in early 1974.

In fact, when Murtha first took his congressional seat in February of that year, he was not even sure he should be in Washington.

Murtha, a state representative and car-wash owner who had lost badly in his first bid for a congressional seat six years before, ran in a special election after the death of longtime Republican U.S. Rep. John P. Saylor.

Murtha appeared to have beaten Republican Harry M. Fox by a narrow margin, but a recount was continuing even as he took his oath of office.

Eventually, the final vote tally was decided: Murtha was the victor by a mere 122 votes out of 120,954 total votes cast.

Dominating run

Since that election, no political opponent has come close to defeating the congressman.

He had to run again in 1974 to retain his seat, and Murtha bested Fox by 24,777 votes in that year’s general election. He gained 58 percent of the vote.

Statistics from that election onward show a congressional stalwart whose career has never faltered despite shifting political winds over three-plus decades:

• Murtha has faced general-election opposition 14 times.

• His average margin of victory over Republicans is 56,337 votes. He has won by an average of 32.8 percentage points.

• Also in those elections, Murtha has earned less than 60 percent of the vote only twice.

• In his first decade in office, Murtha defeated six different Republican challengers by an average of nearly 50,000 votes.

• His largest margin of victory in any general election was 88,963 votes in 2000 running against Republican Bill Choby.

Murtha gained nearly 71 percent of the total 205,437 votes cast that November.

• Murtha has run unopposed in general elections three times.

• The last time the congressman faced opposition in a primary election was 2002, when a redistricting plan pitted him against Democratic U.S. Rep. Frank Mascara of Washington County.

Mascara was expected to be a tough challenger, given that he already had his own constituent base. But Murtha, who had more than a few local Republicans switching parties to back him, won with 64 percent of the vote.

Cloudy circumstances

Many observers attribute Murtha’s continuing success to the fact that he is a powerful, senior member of Congress – and a political institution in this area – who seemingly can deliver money and jobs to his district at will.

But that certainly was not true in the early years of his congressional service.

And, through the years, all has not gone smoothly for Murtha or for his district.

• A disastrous flood struck Johnstown during the summer of his fourth year in office, and it would have been understandable if residents took out some of their frustration on elected officials in the aftermath of the deluge. But in 1978, Murtha defeated his GOP opponent by 56,774 votes.

• Murtha ran his next campaign, in 1980, under the cloud of the FBI “Abscam” bribery investigation. The probe eventually led to the conviction of seven members of Congress, and Murtha testified before a grand jury.

He never was charged, and a House ethics panel also cleared him. But even before those outcomes were clear, Murtha won in the 1980 general election by about 19 percentage points.

• In the 1980s, Johnstown’s industrial base was crumbling and employment surpassed the 20-percent mark. Murtha, from 1982 through 1986, won general elections by an average of 56,431 votes.

• And in 2006, some Republicans believed they had identified a vulnerability in Murtha’s political armor: The congressman was speaking vehemently against the war in Iraq and President Bush, possibly angering some conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans who traditionally backed Murtha. Republican Diana Irey pushed the Iraq issue hard in her campaign against Murtha.

In November, he won with about 61 percent of the vote.

New challenger

This year, Republican William Russell is using Iraq and some social issues to argue that Murtha is a liberal who is out of touch with his constituents.

In little more than a month, a new set of election results will determine whether that strategy breaks new ground by allowing an opponent to gain any ground on Murtha.

If Russell does not win, his campaign nonetheless could prove historic if he wins more than 41.9 percent of the vote – the most a GOP challenger has gained in any battle against Murtha since February 1974.

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