One political label has been prized for decades in a congressional district just north of Philadelphia. It’s not Republican or Democrat. It’s “moderate.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican seeking a third term in the Bucks County-based 1st District, relies on that label, frequently emphasizing his “independent” streak. It’s easy to see why: He’s one of just two congressional Republicans in the country running for reelection in a district carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“Brian Fitzpatrick, ranked No. 1 most independent congressman ever in U.S. history,” declared his first digital ad of the general election campaign.

Moderation can be a sliding scale for voters. Conservative Republicans dismiss Fitzpatrick as a RINO — a Republican In Name Only. Liberals see him as deeply in league with President Donald Trump.

Christina Finello, the Democratic nominee, said Fitzpatrick has been “voting against things people need” to survive the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats narrowly outnumber Republicans in the district, a solidly middle-class swath of suburbia that includes part of Montgomery County. And heated debate over whether a Fitzpatrick deserves the moderate tag is familiar ground for local voters, dating back to when his late brother, Mike Fitzpatrick, represented the district.

Whether Brian Fitzpatrick survives what’s likely to be a challenging reelection campaign while Trump continues to repel suburban voters will offer clues about if and how Republicans can hold on to power in the suburbs.

“Anybody that claims I’m not a moderate and not an independent thinker is living on another planet,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview Thursday, touting his involvement with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said the success of moderate politicians in the region dates to the late 1970s. Pete Kostmayer, a Democrat, served seven terms in the House, followed for six terms by Republican Jim Greenwood. They weren’t ideological warriors. The district didn’t expect — or want — them to be. The same could be said for the men who followed: Mike Fitzpatrick and Democrat Patrick Murphy.

The AFL-CIO this month endorsed Fitzpatrick, the only Republican the labor group backed for U.S. House in Pennsylvania and just one of eight GOP endorsements out of 189 overall. Bloomingdale cited Fitzpatrick’s support for unionized federal employees’ rights, dredging jobs on the Delaware River, and protections for union organizing.

All that made it “pretty easy to endorse” Fitzpatrick, Bloomingdale said. To do otherwise would be the act of a “fair-weather friend,” he said.

Fitzpatrick’s moderate bona fides have been a source of frustration among progressive groups eager to retake a seat held by Republicans for a decade. Fitzpatrick withstood the 2018 Democratic wave that washed out Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Christina Finello.
Courtesy: Finello for Congress
Christina Finello.

In an interview, Finello rattled off positions taken by Fitzpatrick that she said show he’s no moderate, starting with his support for Trump’s 2017 tax cuts — which disproportionately benefited wealthy Americans and swelled the federal budget deficit.

She condemned Fitzpatrick for voting against the Heroes Act, a second coronavirus economic relief package the House passed in May. The Republican-controlled Senate didn’t advance the bill, and negotiations between the White House and congressional Democrats have gone nowhere.

Finello said Fitzpatrick’s vote means he opposed oversight of federal aid to make sure it “went to struggling small businesses rather than corporations.” The bill also included money for state and local governments, continuing supplemental unemployment benefits, and extending moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures.

“We’re talking right now in August, the fourth straight month where roughly a third of Americans have missed a housing payment, voting against things people need,” she said.

Fitzpatrick noted that 14 Democrats voted against the bill. He said he supports more funding for state and local governments, the Postal Service, small businesses, and unemployment benefits. But he opposed a provision in the bill that aimed to reduce the prison population to fight the spread of the virus.

He also opposes Trump’s call for a payroll tax cut, saying it would “jeopardize Social Security and Medicare.” And on a day when Trump openly admitted that by withholding funding for the Postal Service, it would be unable to handle an anticipated surge of mail voting, Fitzpatrick said the USPS should be “fully funded.”

And Fitzpatrick noted that he backed “major policy initiatives” advanced by Democrats after they retook the House, including Democratic priorities like strengthening protections for voting rights, closing the gender pay gap, and expanding antidiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

“That’s union rights, environmental rights, gun safety, LGBT rights,” Fitzpatrick said. “These are major, major initiatives.”

In June, he was one of just three Republicans who voted for the police reform measure passed by the House after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

It all adds up to a record the Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy rank as the most bipartisan of any member of the House. The center’s index is based on “how often a member of Congress introduces bills that succeed in attracting cosponsors from members of the other party, and how often they in turn cosponsor a bill introduced from across the aisle.”

Fitzpatrick has voted with Trump 64% of the time on legislation on which the president has a clear position, according to the website FiveThirtyEight. Just two House Republicans have voted with Trump less frequently, according to the analysis.

Democrats counter that Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, has failed to deliver on a defining issue: standing up to Trump.

“You can’t deny the fact he’s been complicit with Donald Trump on his most important initiatives, and has been silent as a lamb when his own FBI directors have been attacked, when our military leaders have been attacked by this president,” said Murphy, who unseated Mike Fitzpatrick in 2006 but lost the seat back to him in 2010. (Mike Fitzpatrick died in January.)

Murphy, asked if he thought there were any moderate Republicans in Congress, pointed to Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the only one who voted to convict Trump at his impeachment trial.

“Where was he on that vote?” Murphy said of Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick said he will wait until the election to decide whether to vote for Trump or presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

The debate over Fitzpatrick’s independence is something of a redux of his 2018 campaign against Democrat Scott Wallace.

Progressives were incensed then when Everytown for Gun Safety, the antigun violence group cofounded by Mike Bloomberg, endorsed Fitzpatrick. Everytown cited Fitzpatrick’s vote against a bill backed by the National Rifle Association that would require states to recognize concealed carry permits from other states — but progressives questioned his commitment to the issue.

The Bucks County branch of Moms Demand Action, an arm of Everytown, dissolved in protest.

Ali Glickman, of Solebury Township, cofounded Orange Wave for Gun Safety along with other former Moms Demand Action volunteers. She said that Fitzpatrick is no moderate, and that regardless, voting for Republicans won’t help on issues like gun violence. The only way to advance the cause is to elect Democrats like Finello, she said.

“If we don’t have the majority, it doesn’t really matter, period,” Glickman said.

While Finello’s campaign frequently mocks Fitzpatrick’s claims of independence, Finello said she doesn’t focus on labels.

“I’m focusing on what people are talking about right at this moment,” she said. “People are concerned right now about how they’re going to pay their rent when they’ve lost their job. They’re worried about what’s happening when they have to send their kids back to school.”