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How Brian Fitzpatrick won in an ‘atrocious political environment’ for suburban Republicans

One analyst called Fitzpatrick's opponent the "worst" Democratic contender in the election cycle.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, left, celebrates being re-elected with his brother, former Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick at the Bucks County GOP watch party in Doylestown, Pa., on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Fitzpatrick defeated Democratic challenger Scott Wallace.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, left, celebrates being re-elected with his brother, former Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick at the Bucks County GOP watch party in Doylestown, Pa., on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Fitzpatrick defeated Democratic challenger Scott Wallace.Read moreTim Tai / Staff Photographer

Earlier this year, Ed Rendell had doubts about multimillionaire philanthropist Scott Wallace's campaign for the U.S. House.

Pennsylvania's former Democratic governor believed that Wallace's primary opponent, a Navy veteran and woman, stood a better chance of unseating Republican incumbent Brian Fitzpatrick in the general election. So Rendell donated to Rachel Reddick and helped raise money for her.

It didn't work. After pouring $2 million of his own into the race, Wallace won the Democratic nomination for Bucks County's First District.

On Tuesday, Fitzpatrick defied the Democratic tide that swept through most of the Philadelphia suburbs, defeating Wallace in a district that Hillary Clinton had carried by two percentage points in 2016. One major reason Fitzpatrick prevailed, political observers said, is that Democrats chose a weak nominee.

"Mr. Wallace is a good guy, but he was a flawed candidate," Rendell said.

At the same time, analysts said, Fitzpatrick distanced himself from President Trump and carved out an identity as a centrist.

"He won in a district where Trump's numbers are probably not all that good," said John Brabender, a Republican consultant. "Why? Because people saw him as being very independent and having accomplishments. … They weren't going to penalize him based on their feelings for the president where they saw an exception."

Wallace's loss helped Republicans limit Democratic pickups in Pennsylvania to three seats in a year in which they were aiming to capture four or five.

Wallace wasn't available for comment Wednesday. On Tuesday night, after his loss became clear, he said: "I think the voters decided they want to stick with something that feels a little safer and hopefully centrist, and maybe they see some hope there."

Strikingly, Wallace lost by the same amount — fewer than three percentage points — as George Scott, a Democrat who challenged Republican incumbent Rep. Scott Perry in a central Pennsylvania district President Trump won by nine percentage points.

His defeat also took place a year after Democrats made historic gains in municipal races in Bucks County, and in a district where Trump's approval rating was underwater.

Gov. Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey, both Democrats, won Bucks County by large margins: 18 and 14 percentage points, respectively.

Observers pointed to several factors that hurt Wallace's standing among area voters, who have a history of splitting their tickets.

Though he was born in Bucks County, Wallace had until recently lived in Washington and South Africa, making it easy to mark him as a "carpetbagger." He inherited his wealth — his grandfather's seed company was bought by DuPont Co. for $10 billion — and Fitzpatrick criticized him for lamenting the deluge of "corporate money" in politics while self-funding his own campaign to the tune of at least $8 million.

Wallace reportedly said "f–" in a synagogue, another moment that damaged him in what former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent called a generally "atrocious political environment" for suburban Republicans.

Advertisements tying Wallace to cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, which some likened to the infamously racist Willie Horton ad, also hurt him, political insiders said.

Yet Rendell said the "most devastating" moment in Wallace's campaign was when audio emerged of him allegedly saying that "dogs are smarter than police officers." In response, Wallace's team called the clip a "smear" that relied "on 12 seconds of audio from an unidentified source, time, date, and place."

"I thought it was an even race until that," Rendell said.

Political observers said it's also possible that, while Fitzpatrick distanced himself from Trump, the president's talk of a caravan of Latin American migrants, as well as the nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, energized some GOP voters in his district. Fitzpatrick's primary opponent, a pro-Trump Republican, received one-third of the vote in the spring.

Wallace sought to tie Fitzpatrick to Trump, noting that he supported the GOP's tax cuts and voted with Trump 84 percent of the time, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.

But Fitzpatrick was able to develop a moderate brand by siding with Democrats on key issues, analysts said: He voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act and opposed Trump's executive order banning citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

Fitzpatrick also won the support of a number of groups that usually ally with Democrats, including powerful labor unions and gun-control organizations, and received the endorsements of news outlets including the Inquirer. That solidified his image as a centrist, and Phil Glover, district council vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees union, said the group helped get out the vote for the Republican.

Fitzpatrick's model was similar to the one Sen. Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican, used to win support in the city's moderate suburbs in 2016. The senator, too, highlighted his endorsement by gun-control organizations.

The fact that Fitzpatrick's brother and predecessor is former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick also provided a boost, observers said. So did at least $8 million that outside pro-Fitzpatrick groups spent on the race.

Wallace won a smaller percentage of the vote than Clinton did in such areas as Doylestown Township, Middletown Township, and New Britain.

Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the nonpartisan elections analyst Cook Political Report, said Wallace was perhaps the "worst" Democratic contender in the election cycle.

Staff writers Laura McCrystal, Nathaniel Lash, and Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.