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Can Brian Fitzpatrick, a self-described ‘centrist’ Republican congressman, survive in the Philly suburbs in 2018?

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick's fate in November may come down to whether voters believe that he is truly a moderate — or even care about that question, with Donald Trump in the White House.

Brian Fitzpatrick speaks to Mohammad Fakrul Islam after attending a prayer service at North Penn Mosque in Lansdale, Pa., earlier this month. Fitzpatrick says he attends prayer services there every week to connect with his constituents.
Brian Fitzpatrick speaks to Mohammad Fakrul Islam after attending a prayer service at North Penn Mosque in Lansdale, Pa., earlier this month. Fitzpatrick says he attends prayer services there every week to connect with his constituents.Read moreERIN BLEWETT / Staff Photographer

It's early October, and Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is marching with dozens of unionized postal workers down the streets of Philadelphia.

He's come to a Center City rally opposing the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service, and he's dressed for the part: A T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "U.S. Mail Not for Sale" is pulled over his white button-up. Federal employees are chanting, "We are the union, the mighty, mighty union!"

When they reach Independence Mall, Fitzpatrick speaks alongside three Democratic congressmen, a Democratic state senator, and an attorney running for the U.S. House on the Democratic ticket.

"The post office works pretty darn well, I think," he said to cheers. "We have your back."

In this highly partisan era, just before a midterm election, it is an unusual sight.

But it's part of Fitzpatrick's M.O.: The 44-year-old freshman congressman is betting that a Republican with a moderate brand can win in the Philadelphia suburbs in 2018.

He's running for reelection against Democrat Scott Wallace in Bucks County's First District, ground zero for the fight for control of the House. Bucks is a true swing county, where both Hillary Clinton and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey won in 2016.

Political analysts and even some Democrats think Fitzpatrick could eke out a victory, unlike many other suburban Republicans throughout the country. Wallace argues that the moderate talk is just that — all talk.

The fight of Fitzpatrick's political life comes at a moment of existential crisis for moderate Republicans. As their party has become more conservative and populist, culminating in the 2016 election of President Trump, many are calling it quits on their jobs: Four center-right Republicans in the Philadelphia region resigned from Congress or announced they wouldn't run for reelection this year.

By some measures, Fitzpatrick is the only moderate Republican in Pennsylvania's congressional delegation asking voters for another term. That makes the First District race both a referendum on centrism itself — and a test of whether voters believe such a thing exists in Trump's GOP.

Said Ryan Costello, the Chester County House Republican who decided not to run again: "If Brian doesn't win, it would tell you just how bad the political environment is in suburban America for Republicans."

‘Brian Fitzpatrick Ranked #1 Most Independent Freshman Congressman’

At gas stations, town fairs, and suburban homes throughout Bucks County, red-white-and-blue campaign signs read: "Brian Fitzpatrick Ranked #1 Most Independent Freshman Congressman."

At campaign stops, Fitzpatrick touts membership in the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of Democrats and Republicans seeking to pass bipartisan legislation.

Since he first ran for office in 2016 after serving in the FBI for 14 years, Fitzpatrick has carefully cultivated an image he had the benefit of inheriting: When he was building cases against Eliot Spitzer and others, his brother, then-U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, was building a reputation as a Republican willing to work with Democrats.

Embracing his family's brand was step one. Step two: Once elected, he sided with Democrats on several high-profile issues. He was one of the Republicans who cast a decisive vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act. He opposed President Trump's executive order that banned citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Fitzpatrick also broke with his party on a bill that would require states to honor concealed-carry gun permits from other states. He said nay to another opposing a carbon tax. And he was the only Republican congressman running for reelection who didn't join a lawsuit to block the state's new congressional map.

"My biggest concern for our country right now is hyper-partisanship," Fitzpatrick said in an interview. "We're polarizing to the extremes rather than growing to the center-out. I really worry about it."

The "price you pay for being a centrist," he said, is getting "beat up from all sides."

Wallace, Fitzpatrick's Democratic opponent, counters that the incumbent "votes with Trump 84 percent of the time." The figure, from the website FiveThirtyEight, packs a punch in a district where Trump's disapproval rating is 53 percent.

Wallace has highlighted that Fitzpatrick voted for Trump's tax cuts, which he said benefited the wealthy. Fitzpatrick defends his vote, arguing the old tax code was "an antiquated, outdated monstrosity and a job-killer."

Yet Fitzpatrick has developed relationships with powerful allies that normally support Democrats, including labor unions and gun-control groups. The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO and former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords' PAC, as well as the Inquirer Editorial Board, have endorsed him.

Perhaps another reason Fitzpatrick has been able to build a moderate brand is because his party has moved to the right, particularly on issues such as immigration, making him stand apart where he might not have before.

Fitzpatrick said he visits a mosque in Lansdale in his district weekly. Reporters joined him there this month — around the same time that Trump claimed without evidence that "Middle Easterners" had joined a caravan of Latin American migrants.

"You can count on me being here every single Friday," Fitzpatrick told worshipers.

‘We got to get rid of Trump cronies’

Fitzpatrick's fate in November may come down to whether independents and suburban women believe that he is truly a moderate — or even care about that question, with Trump in the White House.

Asked about that FiveThirtyEight "Trump score," which Democrats argue proves he isn't a moderate, Fitzpatrick said, "It's a fake number."

"We've cast, what, 3,000 votes?" he said. "What do they identify, 40 out of the 3,000?"

The FiveThirtyEight ranking of Fitzpatrick is based on 93 votes. According to the website, Fitzpatrick has taken the same side as Trump on legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, stripping funding from cities that have "sanctuary" immigration laws, and rolling back regulations on financial institutions.

In Fitzpatrick's view, a fairer analysis comes from Georgetown University and the Lugar Center. Their "Bipartisan Index" examines the rate at which lawmakers introduce bills that win cosponsors from across the aisle, or sign onto bills from the other party.

That report ranked Fitzpatrick as the third most bipartisan legislator overall in the House in 2017.

Wallace, a multimillionaire philanthropist and former U.S. Senate committee lawyer, also has identified as an independent. At the same time, he's said Fitzpatrick takes money from "corporate special interests" and criticized the Problem Solvers Caucus: "I haven't seen those problems solved yet."

Wallace's constant drumbeat about Fitzpatrick's vote for the tax cuts has effectively forced the incumbent to campaign on an issue many Republicans have avoided.

Republicans likewise have sought to paint Wallace as no centrist, trying to tie him to convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. One TV ad falsely claiming that Wallace funded Abu-Jamal's defense was pulled from the airwaves.

With less than two weeks to go, Wallace has $1.4 million on hand, while Fitzpatrick has $1.2 million, according to campaign finance filings. An eye-popping $18 million already has been spent on the race, much of it on TV ads.

Political observers say the First District race is a "toss-up," and recent polls have found mixed results.

Republican strategist John Brabender said that if Fitzpatrick holds on, it could be instructive for Republicans in 2020.

"That will serve as a model, if you will, to how Republicans can still win in very moderate-leaning districts," he said.

Still, Brabender said Trump accounts for "70 percent of how people are going to vote." Democrats now believe control of the House could come down to a handful of races.

Last Saturday, in search of voters, Wallace knocked on Dave Marconi's door in Middletown Township. Marconi normally splits his ticket. Not this year.

"We got to get rid of Trump cronies," he said.

Around the corner, Wallace found another Democrat. The middle-aged man told him he's planning to vote for Democratic Gov. Wolf — but in Congress, "I happen to like the one we have."

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