As a light summer shower passed through Delaware County earlier this month, State Sen. Tom Killion knocked on doors in Aston Township, asking people how they held up during a recent storm and handing out campaign flyers.
Walking around a solidly Republican area where Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 and easily won that year, Killion came across Kevin Uff, 64, a Steelworkers union member who worked 44 years at the old South Philadelphia refinery and retired shortly before it exploded in 2019.
Uff, standing in his driveway, identified himself as a Democrat. “It’s OK, a lot of Democrats vote for me,” said Killion, wearing a face mask as he kept his distance in the cul-de-sac. “I’m a moderate Republican.”
Uff soon asked Killion for his thoughts on Trump. “I don’t like the rhetoric at all,” Killion said. He went on to explain that he gets along with members of both parties in Harrisburg. They work to get things done, Killion said, and—
“I understand all that,” Uff cut in, “but I would think that with the antics that he’s pulled over the last 3 1/2 years that you would definitely say, ‘I could never vote for this guy.’ ”
Other voters Killion met seemed more inclined to support him; one asked about getting a Trump campaign sign. But the episode underscored the challenge facing Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, whose ranks have been steadily depleted over the last four years amid a wave of anti-Trump Democratic enthusiasm.
As they try to defy that trend, Republicans like Killion, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County, and several state representatives are pitching voters on bipartisanship and highlighting their support for things like renewable energy and some firearms restrictions.
Whether that’s enough for them to hold on to power will help show whether suburban voters simply want to get rid of Trump — or a wholesale repudiation of anyone associated with the party he leads. After winning the national suburban vote by 5 points in 2016, Trump now trails Democratic nominee Joe Biden among those voters by 8 points, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week. Trump’s warning that Biden will “destroy” the suburbs and insistence that “the suburban housewife” will ultimately back him have so far fallen flat outside Philadelphia.
“In the suburbs, the president frankly isn’t popular,” Killion said in an interview as he and a group of supporters handed out fliers highlighting his work to fight the coronavirus pandemic, lower the cost of prescription drugs, support public schools, and push a 2018 law to “keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.”
“That has hurt Republican candidates down ballot,” Killion said of Trump, whose nominating convention kicks off Monday. “But we also here, in this district, have a history of ticket-splitting. It happened with [Democratic former Gov. Ed] Rendell. It happened with Trump last time. I don’t expect anything different in November.”
Killion’s campaign literature didn’t mention his political party.
Chris Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said voters may not have “deep-seated anger” with down-ballot suburban Republicans. “But they’ve got an ‘R’ next to them right now,” he said, “and if you’re angry at the top, you might be spreading that anger around a little more than you have in the past.”
The highest-profile Republican seeking reelection in the southeast is Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent running for a third term in the Bucks County-based 1st Congressional District.
Fitzpatrick, one of just two congressional Republicans seeking reelection in a district Hillary Clinton won in 2016, is running as an “independent” consensus-builder who is willing to break with his party.
On Saturday, Fitzpatrick and more than 20 other Republicans joined the Democratic majority in supporting $25 billion in funding for the Postal Service, legislation Fitzpatrick cosponsored.
In an interview, he lamented a “Hatfield-vs.-McCoy environment” in Washington. He touted his work on police reform legislation with Rep. Karen Bass (D., Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and described the Postal Service “as American as apple pie,” as the Trump administration has come under fire for widespread mail delays.
Fitzpatrick said he convened a meeting of local police chiefs this month to discuss reform legislation that passed the House in June after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Fitzpatrick was one of only three Republicans who voted for it.
“I told them that we need to lead here,” Fitzpatrick said. “There are changes to the system that we need.”
Fred Harran, head of the Bensalem Police Department, said Fitzpatrick “wants to be a problem-solver and not sit on the sidelines and be given the rules to play by.”
At the same time, Fitzpatrick’s campaign has paid for Facebook ads highlighting his opposition to a push by Black Lives Matter activists to “defund the police” and accused his Democratic opponent, Christina Finello, of supporting the cause.
Finello said that she opposes defunding the police and that “Brian Fitzpatrick’s suggestion otherwise is a flat-out lie.”
“Fitzpatrick is using Donald Trump’s playbook of making things up to cover for his record in Washington of silently enabling Trump’s darkest moments and his record of voting with Donald Trump when it matters most to Bucks and Montgomery counties,” she said in a statement. “That’s what this election is all about.”
Ten Republican state representatives are also seeking reelection in the Philadelphia suburbs. A few others are retiring.
In Montgomery County, State Rep. Todd Stephens’ campaign website features photos of him with Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and an endorsement from the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a teachers’ union that tends to support Democrats.
“These are Republicans who pretend to be moderates when they’re in their district but go to Harrisburg and vote with folks like former Speaker Mike Turzai,” said State Rep. Leanne Krueger (D., Delaware), chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “They don’t vote like moderates when they’re in Harrisburg. They vote like extreme conservatives.”
Perhaps nowhere is the political climate so tough for the GOP as it is in Pennsylvania’s 9th Senate District, where Killion is seeking a second term after narrowly winning in 2016.
Clinton outperformed Trump by 14 points in the district, and Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey did even better two years later. The seat is one of Democrats’ top targets in their long-shot bid to take control of the state Senate (they need a net gain of four seats).
The district encompasses parts of Chester and Delaware Counties, stretching east from Kennett Square to the impoverished city of Chester and north from the Pennsylvania-Delaware border to East Goshen Township.
It is almost evenly split among Democrats and Republicans.
“It’s the richest of the rich, the poorest of the poor,” said Killion, who was previously a state representative and, before that, chairman of the Delaware County Council. “I have horse country in Chester County and the riverfront: city of Chester, Chester Township, all good people.”
“I try to represent them all,” he said.
Killion credited Wolf for doing “some good things out of the gate” to fight the coronavirus, but has also questioned the governor’s reopening plan, testing delays in nursing homes, and the process by which his administration exempted certain businesses from shutdown orders. Asked about Trump’s handling of the pandemic, Killion said the region didn’t have enough personal protective equipment at the outset.
Last year, he joined a citizen complaint filed against Sunoco with the Public Utility Commission over the construction of the Mariner East Pipeline, a divisive issue in the area. He noted he has cosponsored pipeline safety legislation with Democrats.
His home is less than a mile from one of the pipelines. “It affects me directly,” he said. “It has to be done safely. I have two grandchildren. My wife watches my grandson every day.”
The trends have been shifting in Democrats’ favor. In 2003, when Killion was first elected to the state House, there were almost twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats in Delaware and Chester Counties. Today, Democrats have a narrow registration edge in Chester County and a wider one in Delaware County.
Democrats took control of both county governing boards last year for the first time in modern history.
Killion’s Democratic opponent, John Kane, is business manager of Plumbers Local 690. “I’m a blue-collar guy. I’m a straight shooter,” he said. “And I believe they need that type of voice up there.”
Kane, asked how he contrasted with Killion, put it simply: “He’s supportive of Donald Trump. That I can tell you is the biggest issue that I have with the man.”
Killion said it’s not that simple. “Some of the policies I’m OK with, not all of them,” he told Uff, the retired refinery worker in Aston Township. “I don’t agree with anybody 100% of the time, ever. Not even my own party.”