By Daniel C. Vock
U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick faces a tough reelection bid for his Bucks County seat this November, as a Republican in an increasingly Democratic territory.
But the retired FBI agent, who cultivates a reputation for breaking with his party, has proven he could beat the odds before, even when he was vastly outspent in a Democratic year in 2018.
That makes this year’s matchup against Democratic challenger Christina Finello one of the more competitive races for a U.S. House seat in the country.
Finello, a public health administrator and Ivyland Borough Council member, says she understands the struggles of residents in the district better than Fitzpatrick. She points out that she’s lived in the 1st District most of her life, a subtle distinction from Fitzpatrick, who lived in California, Iraq and other foreign posts during his law enforcement career.
And Finello mentions that she’s still paying off her student loans, like many of the people in her district.
Finello isn’t running a policy-heavy campaign, she says, explaining that voters’ “main concerns are about making sure that somebody understands them and understands what they’re going through.”
But she does bring up many stories of people who fear losing their health insurance or not being able to afford health care, an issue that has become even more salient during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even then, though, she talks about it in personal terms. Finello recalls worrying that she would lose her health care insurance, after her carrier told her pregnancy would qualify as a preexisting condition. Her daughter was born with a preexisting condition as well.
The Affordable Care Act signed by President Barack Obama prohibits insurers from discriminating against patients with preexisting conditions. But the Obamacare law could be struck down by courts, because of changes Republicans made to Obamacare in their 2017 tax cut law—something Fitzpatrick voted for, Finello notes.
“This can’t be said enough: I’m a better fit for this district because I get what our daily lives are like and the struggles we’re facing. And I’m willing to hold Fitzpatrick accountable for not being there for us when we need a voice in Washington most,” she said.
During the pandemic, she added, “Brian Fitzpatrick has chosen partisan politics over protecting working people, small businesses and state and local governments that are struggling to stay afloat.”
Kate Constantini, a spokesperson for the Fitzpatrick campaign, said the incumbent has introduced several pieces of legislation to address the fallout from the pandemic.
One proposal would require certain medical equipment, medicines and other emergency-related supplies to be made in the United States. Another would require insurance companies that offer business interruption insurance to cover businesses that governments shut down for public health reasons. A third would attempt to hold China liable for the economic losses Americans suffered because of the coronavirus.
None of those proposals have moved past the introduction stage in the Democratic-controlled House.
Finello is trying to tie Fitzpatrick to President Donald Trump as much as she can, but that line of attack is complicated by the fact that Fitzpatrick has repeatedly rebuked the president of his own party and has promoted his independence from the GOP.
Fitzpatrick criticized Trump for being too friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was also one of four Republicans who formally condemned Trump for writing racist tweets that said four Democratic members of Congress who are women of color should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Fitzpatrick has also courted centrist voters by breaking with Republican stalwarts on gun control and the environment.
“People of all political ideologies … all support Brian’s message of bipartisanship and bringing our community together. His constituents want real results while our opponent only offers partisan political talking points,” Constantini said.
“Our country can’t afford the radical left policies that have made their way into our political discourse. Their extreme agenda of defunding the police, releasing dangerous criminals from prison and giving stimulus checks to illegal immigrants while the American people are struggling to get by is just too dangerous,” she added.
One of the most important sources of support Fitzpatrick has secured is from organized labor. He earned the endorsement of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO and unions for firefighters and police. (Finello also touts her labor bona fides, noting that her father was a union worker when she was growing up.)
“He’s not one of these congressmen who looks at what those donors want. He looks at what his voters want,” said Rick Bloomingdale, the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. “That’s an important piece of being a congressman. Too often many of them pay attention to Wall Street and certainly not Main Street or Street Road, as it is in southeastern Bucks County.”
Bloomingdale credited Fitzpatrick for siding with federal employees on labor issues, for supporting postal workers during recent turmoil and for being one of just five Republicans to vote for a proposal to make sweeping changes to labor laws to give workers more power.
“We have a very simple philosophy: If you support us, we’ll support you,” Bloomingdale said. “That’s it.”
Other outside groups aligned with Democrats are helping Finello. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a party group charged with electing Democrats to the House, has highlighted her candidacy. And Emily’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, is supporting the challenger as well.
Mairead Lynn, a spokesperson for Emily’s List, said Trump’s presidency has galvanized women not just to run for office, but to get involved in political campaigns and to support women who are on the ballot. That, she said, is bad news for Fitzpatrick.
“Fitzpatrick’s votes against women’s reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood are especially troubling for him this year,” Lynn said. “We’ve awoken the beast, and we have absolutely no indication that it is going away. If anything, it is getting stronger, and more women are getting involved.”
The 1st District that Fitzpatrick represents includes most of Bucks County and a little bit of Montgomery County in the Philadelphia suburbs. The area has long been politically competitive and ticket splitters have allowed both Democratic and Republican politicians to win simultaneously for different offices.
Fitzpatrick first won a seat in Congress in 2016, when he succeeded his brother, Mike Fitzpatrick, another moderate Republican, who served four terms. (Mike Fitzpatrick died of cancer earlier this year.)
The district that Brian Fitzpatrick won narrowly voted for Trump. But in 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court redrew the state’s congressional districts as the result of a lawsuit, and the territory that Fitzpatrick now represents favored Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points.
Fitzpatrick held onto the seat that year, despite a nationwide trend of suburban voters electing Democrats. Fitzpatrick’s opponent in that election was Scott Wallace, a wealthy candidate whose grandfather, Henry Wallace, served as vice president to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“Part of the reason Democrats failed here in 2018 was clearly that their candidate was a poor fit for the district,” said David Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook Political Report. “Scott Wallace was a wealthy philanthropist and lawyer who had houses in Maryland and South Africa. And he hadn’t really lived in the district in a long time, and that proved to be a political death knell.”
“This time around, Democrats have a candidate who is a better biographical fit for the district … She looks and sounds like she’s from Bucks County,” Wasserman said. “The problem is, she doesn’t have Scott Wallace’s money. She can’t spend $13 million of her own money on the race.”
By the end of June, Finello had raised $511,000 for her campaign this cycle, compared to Fitzpatrick’s $2.7 million.
The Cook Political Report rates the race as “lean Republican.” Wasserman said that reflects Fitzpatrick’s name recognition in the district, polling showing that he has a narrow lead, the traditional strength of the local Republicans in Bucks County and the fact that, with Trump on the ballot, disgruntled voters could vote against the president directly without having to take their anger out on Fitzpatrick.
Wasserman expects the race to be competitive, but in the “second tier” of competitiveness. “If Democrats want to win 20 seats as opposed to 10, they need to win this kind of district,” he said. “But they could still potentially lose this seat and still pick up 10 seats.”
But J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University, sees plenty of advantages for the Democrats in the contest, too. Fitzpatrick is one of only three GOP members of Congress to represent districts that voted for Clinton. Democrats in the district also have an advantage in party registration, while statewide, Democrats have a 3-1 advantage over Republicans in the number of voters who have requested absentee ballots, he noted.
All of those factors coincide with the collar counties of Philadelphia turning into Democratic territory, Leckrone said. While Bucks County may have lagged behind other counties, the trend is catching up there too.
“This election has been almost wholly nationalized,” Leckrone said. “It’s going to be hard for Fitzpatrick to do his normal independent schtick. There may be a hankering for that right now. But it’s probably one of those things where he gets overwhelmed by the national vote for [Democratic presidential nominee Joe] Biden.”
“The district has always been competitive,” Leckrone added. “But I think once it flips, it’s going to flip permanently. Once the Democrats take control, it’s going to be hard for Republicans to regain it.”