Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District is contested political ground, one where Democrats have thought for a decade they could win back a U.S. House seat.
Democratic voters narrowly outnumber Republicans in the district, which is made up almost entirely of Bucks County. Democrats won control of the county government there last November for the first time in decades. And the district is solidly middle-class, with plenty of college graduates — a demographic turning away from President Donald Trump.
And yet Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican, has shown an enduring capacity to navigate the district’s tricky politics. He’s one of just five Republicans nationwide who still holds a district Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 — and three of those GOP colleagues are retiring instead of running for reelection.
The Democratic strategy: Tie Fitzpatrick to Trump and watch them go down together.
But while he has embraced some of Trump’s political rhetoric ahead of the June 2 primary, Fitzpatrick resists close identification with the president, calling himself undecided in the general election.
“I’m going to do what I’m asking everyone in our community to do, which is to allow the campaign to unfold, to hear both candidates, let them make their cases and make a decision,” he said in an interview.
Fitzpatrick, who calls his district centrist and independent, said he is counting on voters focusing on him and his eventual Democratic opponent, not partisan labels.
For their part, Democrats have not been able to settle on a consensus candidate. The most powerful national political action committees that back Democrats have stayed mostly on the sidelines. That could change after the primary. Courtney Rice, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for House Democrats, said “Fitzpatrick will be automatically tied to Trump” because of his party label.
“Fitzpatrick can try and run away from those facts, but, at the end of the day, he still has an `R’ next to his name and we’re bullish on this district for those facts alone," she said.
Waiting on ‘the perfect storm’
John Cordisco, chairman of the county’s Democratic Party for two decades, sees reasons for optimism. Democrats from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to Tom Wolf and Bob Casey have won the county before. Hillary Clinton eked out a win there over Trump in 2016 even while narrowly losing Pennsylvania. And Democrats are way ahead of Republicans in requests for mail-in ballots this year.
But he is still waiting for the DCCC and other national players like EMILY’s List to stake a claim in the race. And that requires candidates who can raise serious money on their own.
“That takes time [to show] that the winds of fortune are sailing in your direction,” Cordisco said. “I think they believe this district can be won. It just has to present a perfect storm.”
It remains to be seen if dissatisfaction with Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis will produce that perfect storm.
His counterpart, Pat Poprik, has been active in Republican politics for four decades and became chair of the local party in 2012. She calls the district “a mixed bag," with many voters who look past partisanship. Still, Poprik said she encounters some voters who think Fitzpatrick is too hostile to Trump and some who see him as too close to the president.
“It’s just mind-blowing how people perceive him,” she said. “It’s a crazy time.”
Fitzpatrick said past elections make clear that voters in the district, which includes a slice of Montgomery County, “jump back and forth between parties" and consider individuals.
“One of the things I really like about our region, particularly our community, is partisanship for the vast majority of voters is not the most important thing to them,” he said.
Fitzpatrick faces a combative challenge in the June 2 primary from Andy Meehan, an investment-firm president who has forged a campaign long on spectacle but short on resources. Meehan embraces Trump.
While Fitzpatrick largely ignores Meehan, he has shifted closer to Trump in recent weeks, greeting Air Force One when it arrived for the president’s trip to Allentown this month, embracing proposed legislation to hold China responsible for the coronavirus pandemic, and spending $21,602 of his $1.7 million in campaign cash on 50 Fox News commercials for the final stretch.
Meehan, who has an openly hostile relationship with the county party, sneers at “mushy fake Republicans" he considers insufficiently conservative. He blames the loss of Republican control in the county on 105,000 GOP voters who stayed home in last year’s local elections.
“We don’t have a demographic problem. We have a leadership problem,” he said during a small rally last Saturday in front of the Trump Store in Bensalem. “If you don’t stand up for what you believe in and you don’t motivate your base voters to come out and support your candidates, you get low turnout and you lose.”
‘The slice of America’
Christina Finello, an Ivyland Borough Council member and deputy director of the county housing and human services department, appears best positioned to win the Democratic nomination, having raised $171,000 in the race as of March 30. Skylar Hurwitz, a tech consultant from New Hope, has raised about a tenth of that.
The Democratic side of the race has seen its share of tumult. Democratic leaders, local and national, tried without success to recruit better-known candidates for the race. Two candidates, Judi Reiss and Debbie Wachspress, dropped out of the race earlier this year.
Finello stuck to a message “about making the case against Brian Fitzpatrick” when asked if she would have the resources to accomplish that mission. She said her campaign has been in regular contact with the DCCC and EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women running for office.
“This race is just beginning,” she said. “The voters are going to know that I stand with them. Brian Fitzpatrick stands time and time again with Donald Trump.”
Patrick Murphy, a Democrat, held a former version of the 1st District for two terms, defeating and then ultimately losing it to Fitzpatrick’s brother, the late Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick. He resisted entreaties to run again.
Murphy, like others familiar with the territory, sees Bucks County as three distinct regions. The lower end is more urban and blue-collar. Central Bucks in suburban, with a mix of Democrats and Republicans. And the north end is more rural.
“Bucks County is literally the slice of America,” Murphy said. “It is a district that goes for the person, not the party. They put the country first. They have to kick the tires and know who they’re voting for and what they stand for.”
Christopher Nicholas, a Republican political consultant in Harrisburg and a Bucks County native, sees Fitzpatrick as the right kind of candidate to hold the seat, despite outside political factors.
“It seems to me like Fitzpatrick’s challengers are just going through the motions,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of energy there.”