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Democrats fear a suburban Philly congressional race is their ‘biggest recruiting failure in the country’

Despite huge wins in the Philadelphia suburbs in recent years and ongoing political troubles for President Donald Trump, the race to unseat Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in Bucks County has yet to draw a top-tier Democratic challenger.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, (R., Pa.), pictured on Independence Mall in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. Democrats are said to be dismayed about the current field of candidates seeking to challenge Fitzpatrick next year.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, (R., Pa.), pictured on Independence Mall in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. Democrats are said to be dismayed about the current field of candidates seeking to challenge Fitzpatrick next year.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP File

Democrats were so thrilled by their electoral drubbing of Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs this month that they dispatched a top official from the national party to celebrate with local leaders.

“This is an absolute rejection [of President Donald Trump] and his divisiveness, and his record of broken promises in the state of Pennsylvania,” Democratic National Committee CEO Seema Nanda declared at a gathering of Southeastern Pennsylvania party officials last week in Philadelphia.

But behind the scenes, Democrats are worried that their big wins in former GOP strongholds like Delaware, Chester, and Bucks Counties won’t translate to success in a key 2020 House battleground: the Bucks County-based 1st Congressional District.

GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Middletown Township survived the blue wave in last year’s midterm elections, which wiped out suburban Republicans across the country and delivered the speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi. And while Democrats see Fitzpatrick as eminently beatable in 2020, there’s a problem: A top-tier challenger has yet to emerge.

“It’s the biggest recruiting failure in the country,” said a Democratic strategist directly involved in the race, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal party deliberations.

Fitzpatrick holds one of the rare seats in the country that Democrats could flip in a year that will see them mostly playing defense following their big gains in 2018. He’s one of just two Republicans seeking reelection in districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. And the Democratic takeover this month of the Bucks County Board of Commissioners pointed to the party’s growing strength there.

Meanwhile, Trump remains unpopular in suburban areas, and the looming impeachment vote may be difficult to navigate. Fitzpatrick, like the rest of the House GOP caucus, voted against a resolution last month that established rules for the impeachment inquiry. He says any such inquiry must be preceded by a law enforcement investigation. (As an FBI agent in 2015, he fought corruption in Ukraine — putting him in an interesting position as the House investigates Trump’s dealings with the country.)

But among national groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and Emily’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, “there is deep skepticism” that the candidates currently running can topple Fitzpatrick, the Democratic strategist involved in the race said.

The DCCC, House Democrats’ campaign arm, unsuccessfully sought to recruit former Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran who became undersecretary of the Army under President Barack Obama, according to people briefed on the matter. Democrats also tried to recruit Diane Ellis-Marseglia, a Bucks County commissioner who won reelection this month.

It’s still relatively early in the election cycle, and the search for a new candidate is ongoing. Democrats must file nominating petitions by mid-February to get on the April 28 primary ballot. Most political analysts expect House Democrats to retain their majority after 2020, and a wave of Republican retirements suggests the GOP isn’t optimistic about its chances.

Nevertheless, the race in the 1st District will be closely watched by both parties and, as in the past, will likely draw tens of millions of dollars in television advertising. Bucks County tends to be a decent bellwether for the rest of Pennsylvania, whose 20 Electoral College votes are again expected to be a decisive factor in the presidential election.

“All eyes are focused on Bucks,” said John Cordisco, chairman of the county Democratic Party.

Bucks County has been tougher for Democrats to crack than elsewhere in the Philadelphia suburbs. In addition to winning seats in newly drawn congressional districts in Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties last year, Democrats’ success in flipping more than a dozen state House and Senate seats in the Southeast also largely ran through those counties.

They had less success in Bucks County in 2018. And Democrats’ margins of victory in races there this month were narrower than the results in the other so-called collar counties.

Former Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick represented the district for four terms and was succeeded by brother Brian in 2017. In the 2018 congressional race, Brian Fitzpatrick’s campaign and outside Republican groups portrayed his Democratic challenger, Scott Wallace, as a liberal out-of-touch millionaire who’d spent much of his life living outside the district.

Fitzpatrick, who had support from groups that typically align with Democrats, like organized labor, focused on local issues like the opioid epidemic and branded himself an independent thinker who broke ranks with his party’s leadership. He won by less than 3 percentage points, even as Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, both Democrats, carried the county by double digits en route to reelection.

Some Democrats say that in a Clinton district, the party’s nominee doesn’t need to be a particularly superior political talent. What the party does need, they say, is a candidate who better resonates with moderate and conservative Democrats who live in Fitzpatrick’s power base of lower Bucks County.

In the past couple of local election cycles, Democrats have taken control of township governing bodies in upscale, traditionally Republican areas in central Bucks. But they’ve had more trouble in parts of lower Bucks, despite a voter registration advantage, where working class Democrats supported Trump in 2016.

“Going forward, if the plan is to try to be successful in a bid for Congress, you need to really begin in lower Bucks County, and really try to cut into that base of support,” Cordisco said.

Four Democratic candidates have filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to seek their party’s nomination. They are Debbie Wachspress, a Pennsbury school board member and co-founder of Lower Bucks Indivisible, an anti-Trump group; Judi Reiss, the county prothonotary; Christina Finello, an Ivyland Borough Council member and deputy director of the county housing and human services department; and Skylar Hurwitz, a 27-year-old tech consultant who lives in New Hope.

Wachspress’ campaign has raised about $216,000, the most among the Democratic candidates. Almost a quarter of that came from personal loans. None of the candidates have raised enough money yet to be competitive in the expensive Philadelphia media market.

Wachspress’ campaign said she had “emerged as the strongest candidate” and would “have the resources and support to unseat” Fitzpatrick.

Reiss said the DCCC was “welcome to visit our district anytime” and that “voters are the only ones who get to decide if I am a candidate worthy of their vote.”

Murphy, who defeated Mike Fitzpatrick in 2006 but lost in a rematch four years later, said he chats "with Speaker Pelosi and other leaders all the time,” but also praised the declared candidates as running “vigorous campaigns.” Ellis-Marseglia said she was “thrilled at the opportunity to serve as a majority commissioner.”

The DCCC wouldn’t comment on its recruitment efforts. Spokesperson Courtney Rice said the group was confident that Democrats would flip the seat and that voters knew Fitzpatrick “went to Washington to prioritize special interests and big corporations."

Fitzpatrick’s campaign had more than $1 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30.

In a statement, Fitzpatrick’s campaign said it welcomed all entrants to the race: “The more people that participate in our government, the healthier our democracy.”

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.