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Fitzpatrick and Santarsiero race in the 8th is drawing all eyes

In the region's most closely watched congressional race, the hottest issue is not about policy or politics. It's about the name Fitzpatrick.

Brian Fitzpatrick (left) and Steve Santarsiero.
Brian Fitzpatrick (left) and Steve Santarsiero.Read more

In the region's most closely watched congressional race, the hottest issue is not about policy or politics. It's about the name Fitzpatrick.

Brian Fitzpatrick's run to replace his brother, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick - and his cross-country move this year to Bucks County to do it - has become one of the few contentious issues to flare between the Republican and his Democratic rival, Steve Santarsiero.

In public, Fitzpatrick, who recently left the FBI, calls himself a political outsider. By other measures, he appears to hope to capitalize on the family name and record of his brother, a four-term incumbent.

Democrats have seized on his low-profile campaign, making separating Fitzpatrick from his brother a key to their strategy.

"If his name were not Brian Fitzpatrick - say it was Brian Wilson - he'd still be living in a beach house in California," Santarsiero said at one debate.

In the country of the Bushes and Kennedys, it is not unheard-of to make politics a family affair. In 2001, Republican Bill Shuster of southwest Pennsylvania ran to take over the House seat long held by his father, Bud Shuster. When Rep. Robert E. Andrews, a South Jersey Democrat, decided in 2008 to give up his House campaign to run for Senate, his wife ran for his seat - until he lost the Senate primary and took back the House campaign.

But the younger Fitzpatrick has been unusually quiet for a first-time candidate, especially one who apparently left his career and moved from California to do just one thing: run for Congress.

He was unavailable for an interview, despite multiple requests by the Inquirer. At two debates this month, he dashed from the event without taking questions from the media.

Instead, he has chosen to use written statements to Bucks newspapers to tout his qualifications.

"It's pretty clear why Brian Fitzpatrick is hiding from the media. . . . He doesn't want to create any daylight between himself and his brother," said Jermaine House, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman.

Last week, Fitzpatrick enlisted his relatives to respond to Democratic ads against him - his father wrote an opinion piece in a local newspaper and his brother was featured in a television ad touting his campaign.

And party leaders don't seem too concerned whether voters might be confused about which Fitzpatrick is running.

"Mike Fitzpatrick is extremely popular in Bucks County and he's done a great job representing his constituents," said Chris Pack, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "I think to have Brian carry forward Mike's work is a good thing."

The Eighth District seat is one of only three open congressional seats in Pennsylvania and rated the only toss-up by the Cook Political Report.

With a nearly even split between parties, sentiments in the district tend to parallel national ebbs and flows.

Democrats have poured more money into this than any other Pennsylvania congressional campaign, filings show. Santarsiero has slightly outspent Fitzpatrick, but Fitzpatrick edged him out last quarter, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Fitzpatrick, 42, grew up in Levittown. Working as an FBI agent, he lived out of state for six years, in Washington, overseas, and California. He bought a house in Bucks County 10 days before announcing his candidacy, property records show.

He touts his FBI experience and focuses on national security and law enforcement. He supported Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump until the release of the tape in which Trump brags about sexually assaulting women. Then, Fitzpatrick said he would not vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton.

He casts himself as an independent and an outsider, but follows conservative positions such as supporting the defunding of Planned Parenthood.

"If there's one question that I really am very uncomfortable with on the campaign trail, it's 'What party are you with?' " he said at a debate Friday in Doylestown.

Santarsiero, 51, is a lawyer from Lower Makefield and former high school teacher who was elected to the state House in 2008. He promotes his legislative experience and support for working families, focusing on infrastructure and education.

Republicans have criticized him for missing state house votes - including on two opioid-prevention bills this week that he has said he supported. His spokesman, Eric Goldman, said Santarsiero was in Harrisburg to vote for some of the bills this week, but skipped two because they had unanimous support.

Bucks County GOP Chair Pat Poprik said she believes most people know the difference between the incumbent Republican representative and his newcomer brother.

"They might not know it's a brother, but I think they know it's not Mike," she said. Besides, she said, "I don't think it's a negative if they do connect them."

During a debate this month, Santarsiero renewed the Democrats' claim that Fitzpatrick is a carpetbagger running on his brother's name.

"At the end of the day, it's about who's been working in this community year after year after year," Santarsiero said.

Fitzpatrick fired back:

"Don't attack me for my service," he said, a reference to working around the world for the FBI. "I left my hometown to serve my country."

As the debate ended, Santarsiero stayed behind to take questions from reporters.

Fitzpatrick left the building.