Why Democrats and Republicans See Opportunity in One House Race

Brian Fitzpatrick is a Democratic target, but Republicans say he is in a strong position

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., talks with guests during a town hall meeting in Bensalem, Pa. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., talks with guests during a town hall meeting in Bensalem, Pa. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 31, 2017 at 5:05am

BENSALEM, Pa. — Republicans like Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick who have bucked their party will likely have to answer the question he faced after a town hall meeting here: What do you say to President Donald Trump’s supporters who are upset with you?

“It’s very easy. You call balls and strikes individually with every issue that comes up,” Fitzpatrick said. “It shouldn’t matter whether the president supports it or opposes it, whether Nancy Pelosi supports it or opposes it.”

“You make the best judgment with one litmus test: what’s in the best interest of your constituents,” Fitzpatrick later added.

The Pennsylvania Republican had just wrapped up a town hall meeting here last week, where he was pressed on the president’s actions and ability to serve.

The questions from constituents and from reporters afterward highlighted challenges facing Republicans in competitive races across the country: how to run a your own race amid a turbulent national environment, and how to garner support both from constituents who support Trump and those who are concerned about his presidency. 

Fitzpatrick has broken with the president on key issues like health care and the environment. And he’s emphasized his work across the aisle. Though Fitzpatrick has also voted in line with Trump’s policies 78 percent of the time, according to an analysis by 538.com

Democrats view the 8th District in the northern Philadelphia suburbs as winnable. But so far no Democrat has come forward to run against him.

No Challenger Yet 

Fitzpatrick was first elected in 2016 by a 9 point margin, though Trump won the district by less than one point according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee listed the 8th District on its initial target list for 2018, and Democrats inside and outside of the state view the seat as a prime pickup opportunity.

“Obviously if there is no serious candidate in the 8th, it would possibly be the biggest recruitment failure in the country,” said one Pennsylvania Democratic consultant.

But Democrats are confident they will field a formidable challenger. A Democratic operative in the Keystone State said to expect more than one candidate to jump in over the next few months.

Some Democrats named Diane Ellis-Marseglia, the Democratic commissioner in Bucks County, as a potential candidate, but she said in a brief interview that she wants to remain in her current position.

She did not know who else might run for the seat, but suggested it could be someone outside of politics.

Other Democrats agreed a political outsider would be a a strong candidate. But he or she would have to be a strong fundraiser to compete in the expensive Philadelphia media market. At the end of the most recent fundraising quarter, Fitzpatrick had nearly $700,000 in cash on hand.

Ellis-Marseglia suggested some potential challengers could be hesitating to jump in because Fitzpatrick, even as a freshman, has high name recognition. 

Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, replaced his older brother Michael in 2016, and Michael served as a Bucks County commissioner before being elected to Congress in 2004. The elder Fitzpatrick lost re-election during the Democratic wave in 2006, but won the seat back in 2010.

Demonstrators who did not obtain a lottery ticket for the town hall of Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., protest outside the meeting. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Demonstrators who did not obtain a lottery ticket for the town hall of Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., protest outside the meeting. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Some strategists on both sides of the aisle also said a challenger could be second-guessing jumping in because Fitzpatrick has not necessarily angered his constituents. For instance, he voted against the unpopular GOP health care plan.

“The election is more than 14 months away. There is plenty of time and it’s clear that he hasn’t locked down the district. He just started,” said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic ad maker in Pennsylvania. “But I also think it’s worth saying, if he had been clumsier about handling things, it’s possible there would be someone already in the field.”

But some Democrats are confident they can win this type of district, given its swing voters. The 8th encompasses all of Bucks County, where 43 percent of registered voters are Republicans, 41 percent are Democrats, and 10 percent are unaffiliated.

Balancing Act

Republicans say lawmakers like Fitzpatrick can stay above the fray at the national level, and successfully appeal to swing voters in their district.

“There’s a very strong streak of individuals or voters not voting along party ideology,” said Pennsylvania GOP consult Pete Peterson. “There’s a lot of vote splitters. And they’re voting for the candidate more so than the party.”

Though Trump won the 8th, his support is also waning in Pennsylvania, which he won by less than 1 point. A recent NBC News/Marist poll showed 33 percent of Pennsylvanians surveyed approved of Trump’s work as president.

So Fitzpatrick’s willingness to buck his party could win over some of those split-ticket voters who are attracted to independent lawmakers.

“I didn’t vote for him last time but I would vote for him just because of what he’s done so far,” said Dave Sargent, a 37 year-old analyst who attended Fitzpatrick’s town hall.

Sargent, a registered Democrat, cited Fitzpatrick’s vote against the health care bill and his work on combating the opioid epidemic, which has hit his district.

But other voters are keeping a close eye on Fitzpatrick’s voting record, and want to see him stand up on more issues.

“He’s not the worst but he’s not the best,” said Meghan Horn, 28, who works in training.

Horn was attending the protest outside of the town hall meeting, and launched her own grassroots group after the election. She is a Democrat and said she was particularly concerned about social justice issues and funding for Planned Parenthood.

Horn and others at the protest were sharply critical of the limited town hall, where interested constituents entered a lottery system and only about 120 were let in. Questions were also vetted by a moderator, a government professor at a local community college.

Fitzpatrick stressed that he would continue to hold community events. He told reporters after the town hall meeting that with a district of roughly 740,000 people, he needs to hold a variety of events including in person town halls and open office hours.

Republicans say Fitzpatrick is doing well with focusing on local issues and reflecting local attitudes on major issues. And they say the key to preparing for a national environment that could favor Democrats is to do the work before campaigns kick into high gear.

Christopher Nicholas, a veteran GOP consultant in Pennsylvania, was confident Fitzpatrick was in a strong position heading into 2018, based on his reputation and focus on his district.

“If you’re tiering congressional races to go after in Pennsylvania or the northeast, is the 8th moving towards the top of that list or towards the bottom?” Nicholas said. “I know what my answer is.”