“Talk is cheap,” Jack Murtha wrote in a letter declaring his candidacy for House Majority Leader, “which is why, up until Iraq forced me to, I didn’t do a lot of it.” The sixteen-term Congressman and former Marine from rural, blue-collar Western Pennsylvania preferred to wheel and deal behind the scenes, doling out favors through his powerful seat on the House Appropriations Committee. Last November Murtha, the ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, stunned the country by dramatically breaking with the Bush Administration’s policy in Iraq and calling for a swift redeployment of US troops. In June, he stunned his party by announcing he would challenge Minority Whip Steny Hoyer for the position of Majority Leader if Democrats took back the House, out of frustration with Hoyer’s support for the war and teed off by Hoyer’s icy relationship with Pelosi.

Hoyer, an amiable, old-school pol from Maryland who’s served in virtually every important leadership position in the Democratic caucus, was expected to cruise to victory unopposed. “If you were doing this to help me, don’t,” Pelosi told Murtha in June. But she didn’t discourage him from running, either. After Democrats won the House, Pelosi, despite initially indicating that she would remain neutral, surprised even her closest supporters by enthusiastically backing her old friend and former campaign manager. “I was proud to support him for Majority Leader,” Pelosi said of Murtha, “because I thought that would be the best way to bring an end to the war in Iraq.”

Ultimately, opposition to the war and support from Pelosi were not enough to put Murtha over the top. In a race full of shockers, the outcome was predictable: Hoyer prevailed, 149 votes to 86. Many Democrats who backed Hoyer said a primary reason for supporting him was to retain the duo that had won them the majority.

“They had been a great combination and we wanted to keep that,” said Elijah Cummings, a liberal Democrat from Maryland who spoke out on Hoyer’s behalf to his colleagues before the vote. “People liked the team of Steny and Nancy,” added New York Congressman Jerry Nadler, another Hoyer supporter. And many colleagues felt they owed Hoyer this time around. “There were a lot of people who voted against Steny in the past and said ‘I’ll get you later,'” said Anthony Wiener, a New York Democrat who backed Murtha. “I guess that’s what happened today.”

Hoyer’s seniority, experience and deep connections helped win support from a broad array of groups within the caucus. He courted incoming freshman Democrats by emphasizing the $4.4 million he gave or raised for House members and won a majority of endorsements from them. Before the conservative Blue Dog Democrats and moderate New Democrat Coalition he touted his centrist reputation and work to make the party more inclusive. Appealing to members of the Progressive Caucus, he detailed in great depth, his “commitment to core Democratic principles,” such as raising the minimum wage and protecting reproductive rights and the environment. Hoyer boasted of a perfect score from NARAL and an “F” from the NRA, the exact opposite of the socially conservative Murtha. Opposition to the war could only carry Murtha so far.

“He was Nixon going to China,” Massachusetts’s Barney Frank said of Murtha’s antiwar credentials, “but on other issues Steny was more in line with the mainstream of our caucus.”

It didn’t hurt that Hoyer, after suggesting last November that Murtha’s call for redeployment “could lead to disaster,” suddenly sounded very much like Jack on the war. “I don’t see any differences at this point in time in terms of what we have both expressed together,” Hoyer said before the vote. Added Elijah Cummings, after the results came in: “He’ll work very closely with [Speaker] Pelosi to do everything possible to bring our troops home from Iraq.” Even Maxine Waters, chair of the Out of Iraq Caucus, supported Hoyer. “We just about have a consensus,” Waters explained. “It’s not that we have a Steny Hoyer that’s holding out and not wanting to end the war.” At least not anymore.

Even allies of Murtha in the recent past, such as MoveOn.org, chose to stay out of this fight. And generally progressive watchdog organizations, like Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, slammed Murtha for his role in the 1980 Abscam scandal, his ties to defense contractors and his recent description of Pelosi’s ethics and lobbying reform bill as “total crap.” Given Hoyer’s own ties to lobbyists on K Street and support for corporate-friendly legislation like the bankruptcy bill, many progressives viewed this race as a battle between the lesser of two evils. One blogger even started a website promoting Henry Waxman, the popular incoming chairman of the Committee on Government Reform, as a dark horse candidate for Majority Leader.

Democrats in the House stressed that this race did not in the end hinge on ideology or one single issue. “This is not about philosophy,” said Mike Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat who helped manage Murtha’s campaign. “I’m a liberal. If that were the basis, I wouldn’t support Jack or Steny. They’re both too conservative for me.”

Democrats from both camps contended that while Pelosi may have miscalculated in backing Murtha so aggressively, the entire race will be forgotten in a week. “She’s a very smart woman who made a mistake in judgment,” said Barney Frank. “But it’s a one-off thing.” Added David Obey, the 68-year-old incoming chair of the Appropriations Committee: “I’ve seen a lot of bigger fights. This was mild by comparison.”