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Bucks-based battle a highlight of area races for Congress

In a corner of Pennsylvania where farmland meets mansions and forsaken factories, the state's fiercest race for a House seat is playing out.

Pennsylvania Democrats in the Eighth District will choose between Steve Santarsiero, a state representative since 2008, and scientist-business owner Shaughnessy Naughton, who lost a 2014 bid for the nomination.
Pennsylvania Democrats in the Eighth District will choose between Steve Santarsiero, a state representative since 2008, and scientist-business owner Shaughnessy Naughton, who lost a 2014 bid for the nomination.Read more

In a corner of Pennsylvania where farmland meets mansions and forsaken factories, the state's fiercest race for a House seat is playing out.

The Bucks County-based Eighth District is the only truly open seat across the region, thanks to the retirement of Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick. Three Republicans and two Democrats are vying for their parties' nominations in next Tuesday's primaries.

The Eighth is one of two districts in the closely divided Philadelphia suburbs where Democrats are hoping to gain ground in the fall, particularly if the top of the GOP ticket turns off moderate voters.

The potential for Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz to win the presidential nomination "injects a lot of uncertainty into down-ballot races, particularly in well-educated districts around Philadelphia," David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, said in an email.

The most consequential vote on primary day will be in the Philadelphia-based Second District Democratic primary, where longtime State Rep. Dwight Evans, Ninth Ward Leader Dan Muroff, and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian Gordon are battling to unseat Rep. Chaka Fattah, the indicted incumbent. With Democrats dominating the district, the winner will almost certainly head to Congress next year.

The race in the Eighth District, where fewer than 3,000 registered voters separate Democrats and Republicans, presents the best chance for a seat to flip parties: Cook rates the contest a toss-up.

The district includes Bucks and a small part of Montgomery County.

Democrats will choose between Steve Santarsiero, a state representative since 2008, and scientist-business owner Shaughnessy Naughton, who lost a 2014 bid for the nomination. Both pledge to focus on education, environmental protection, and infrastructure in Congress.

At an Inquirer Editorial Board meeting last week, Naughton said she is running again because "nothing's changed" for constituents. She argued she would bring new ideas and a woman's perspective to Pennsylvania's congressional delegation, which is now all-male.

Santarsiero's campaign has questioned Naughton's ties to a political action committee she founded in 2014 that has since mailed fliers attacking her rival. The PAC recently employed Josh Morrow, Naughton's top adviser and fiance, while he also worked for her campaign.

Such super PACs are prohibited from working directly with candidates.

Naughton said there was "no coordination" between her campaign and the PAC, saying the group only worked on 2015 elections while Morrow was there. Her campaign said Morrow no longer worked for the PAC, although finance reports show he was paid through at least February.

Santarsiero is hoping to ride his experience from Harrisburg to Washington. He's backed by both county Democratic committees, the AFL-CIO, and Gov. Wolf. None of the 54 bills for which he was a prime sponsor in the last eight years became law, but he cites other accomplishments.

It's "not just [about the] legislative process but also what happens back home" in the district, Santarsiero said.

Among the three Republicans, talk has largely focused on the incumbent's brother, Brian, who joined the race in late January after leaving his job as an FBI agent.

Opponents accused him of being a carpetbagger - Fitzpatrick grew up in Levittown but has lived outside Pennsylvania since 2010 - and questioned whether he started campaigning while still at the FBI, which would violate federal law.

Fitzpatrick denied such allegations. He also said his congressman brother did not tell him to run.

"Mike and I generally don't talk politics," Fitzpatrick told the editorial board. He could not name an issue on which they disagree.

His opponents are longtime Bucks residents who say they will not represent the Republican establishment.

Marc Duome, a neuropsychologist, says he would use business skills in Congress to work on reining in the national debt, repealing the Affordable Care Act, and addressing mental-health issues.

Andy Warren, a former Bucks County commissioner and official with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, says his background gives him the experience necessary to balance a budget, create jobs, and preserve Social Security.

In the Delaware County-based Seventh District, Democrats and Republicans are aiming at Rep. Patrick Meehan.

Mary Ellen Balchunis, a La Salle University political science professor, is battling pastor Bill Golderer for the Democratic nomination.

She has support from local Democratic organizations and labor unions. She said she would focus on passing tougher gun laws and criticized Golderer for living outside the district. "I've been involved in this community, and I think that's the real difference," said Balchunis.

Golderer has backing from the national party and the fund-raising lead. A pastor who has founded or revitalized two Center City churches, he vowed to bring "a track record of innovation" to Congress.

"I've not only founded new organizations, but I've helped bring them from zero to something new," Golderer said.

Golderer lives in Devon, just a few hundred feet outside the district. Campaign laws don't require him to live in the district.

Meehan also faces a challenge from the right. Developer Stanley Casacio says the Republican incumbent is insufficiently conservative.

Elsewhere, longtime Republican Rep. Joe Pitts of Chester County is retiring in the 16th District. Democrats and Republicans are both running candidates from Lancaster County to replace him.

Neither party has a primary in the Chester County-based Sixth District, the Philadelphia-centered First, or the 13th, which includes Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

jmcdaniel@philly.com

610-313-8205 @McDanielJustine

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story included a photo misidentified as candidate Stanley Casacio.

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