The Suburb That Could Flip the House
By ERICK TRICKEY
LEVITTOWN, Pa. — The nation’s most competitive congressional race is playing out in a placid slice of the Philadelphia suburbs.
Pennsylvania’s 8th District has swung from red to blue to red in the past 10 years. Now, the popular Republican incumbent is retiring and with a turbulent presidential race casting confusion over this battleground state, Democrats are salivating at the chance to flip a seat that could even help them retake control of the House.
Whether they succeed might well come down to what Levittown thinks of Donald Trump.
Levittown is the working-class heart of Bucks County, northeast of Philadelphia. Built in an assembly-line frenzy in the early ‘50s, its master-planned streets lined with Jubilee-model Cape Cods and Levittowner-model ranches became synonymous with American suburbia. The houses might look cookie-cutter, but its residents don’t vote alike.
Diane Dembinski, a grandmother of 16, lives on Levittown’s Harmony Road, a swing neighborhood in the swing district. Terrorists are her biggest concern this election year, but Trump is a close second. “Just the fact that he’s running is an embarrassment to me, and for our country,” she said recently.
Like millions of Americans, Dembinski doesn’t like her choice for president. She’s ruled out Trump, whom she calls “a cowboy” with “no finesse.” She’s “not thrilled with” voting for Hillary Clinton either because of Benghazi and her email scandal. But she’ll likely do it to cancel out her husband. “He feels Trump is going to go get all the bad guys—he’s going to build this wall, and keep everybody out and take care of the terrorists.”
Dembinski, a car dealership title clerk, voted for Barack Obama twice. But she admires her departing congressman, Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, a “family man” who attends her Catholic church.
“Because of that, I would probably give his brother a shot,” Dembinski says.
Harmony Road’s kitchen debates about Trump show why Brian Fitzpatrick, the Republican candidate and younger brother of the seat’s current occupant, is doing everything he can to avoid having to discuss the top of the ticket. In January, Fitzpatrick left his job as an FBI agent and moved back to Levittown, his hometown, to run for Congress. Like nervous Republicans across the country, he’s saying very little about Trump and giving few interviews. Last week, he released a cautious statement that mildly praised Trump without endorsing him.
So it’s not surprising that his Democratic opponent, state Rep. Steve Santarsiero, calls Fitzpatrick “cloistered,” hints he’s trying to get elected on his brother’s name, and accuses him of not taking a firm position on Trump. In a district with the closest partisan divide in the nation—Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama here by 0.1 percent in 2012—the top of the ticket could play a meaningful role in the outcome. That’s why it’s a top-tier target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program. It’ll be a key test of the Democrats’ national strategy to win back Congress, or at least trim the GOP majority: Tie every swing-district Republican candidate to Trump.
But as extreme as the reactions to Trump are, polls show his strong appeal with working-class voters threatens to turn Pennsylvania red. Trump ran 2 points ahead of Clinton in Pennsylvania in a Quinnipiac poll released last week, though she’s still ahead statewide in polling averages.
Neither candidate is going to have an easy time carrying the area.
“Everybody running for president is a lunatic and should not be running,” says Erica Kerler, 32, a preschool teacher.
“I don’t like either one of them,” Marian Schofield, 83, an original Levittowner, says of Trump and Clinton. “He’s too outspoken, and I don’t trust her.” She’s ruled out voting for Clinton, and may go for Libertarian Gary Johnson over Trump.
Schofield likes her congressman, who she says has personally returned her son’s phone calls. “I think he’s done a good job,” she says. “He keeps up with people in the area.” But she hasn’t heard of Brian Fitzpatrick. “Is he a relative?” she asks.
Santarsiero is running with Hillary Clinton, not away from her. He talks her up as a sensible centrist who can work across the aisle, praising her promises on infrastructure spending and the cost of college. He calls Clinton’s email debacle a “mistake” but not a reason to distrust her.
“On one hand, you have someone with a tremendous amount of experience,” Santarsiero says. “On the other hand, you’ve got somebody who is at best erratic and has said things that are inflammatory. To me, there’s no choice. She is by far the better candidate.”
A former schoolteacher, Santarsiero, 51, has a knack for beating Republicans in tight races. He took his state house seat out of Republican hands in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote, and beat his 2010 challenger by 162 votes. In his race for Congress, he’s pitching himself as a mix of progressive and pragmatic. He’s been a passionate supporter of a universal background check bill for gun purchasers since the Newtown massacre. But he also brags about his role negotiating with Republicans on a landmark transportation bill that broke a long, partisan logjam. In an antiestablishment year, he talks up his reformer credentials, saying he gave up his salary for seven months because the legislature hadn’t passed a budget.
Santarsiero is careful how he talks about Brian Fitzpatrick, perhaps because both candidates signed a positivity pledge introduced by two local newspapers.
“It’s clear that Brian Fitzpatrick came back to this district just to run for Congress,” he says. “It’s clear that if his last name were not Fitzpatrick, he wouldn’t be running.”
The Democrats’ national strategy for winning the House—link every swing-district Republican to Trump—is in full play in the 8th District. “Why is Brian Fitzpatrick Dodging Donald Trump?” read the headline of a DCCC press release in May. An aggressive tracker hounded Fitzpatrick while he walked in a Fourth of July parade, asking, “Hey, Brian, are you voting for Trump still?”
Fitzpatrick has been slow to embrace his party’s presidential nominee. Just before Pennsylvania’s April primary, Fitzpatrick said he’d wait until the primaries ended to express an opinion on Trump, but that he’d support whichever presidential candidate the 8th District’s Republican primary voters chose. More than half went for Trump. In May, after Trump became the GOP’s presumptive nominee, Fitzpatrick avoided the Philadelphia Inquirer’s two weeks of Trump inquiries. Fitzpatrick’s campaign did not make him available for an interview with POLITICO Magazine, despite several requests by email, phone and a visit to the Fitzpatrick campaign office in Doylestown.
Instead, the campaign sent the Inquirer and POLITICO Magazine a statement that hinted Fitzpatrick was leaning toward Trump. “[Clinton] represents more of the same policies that have failed to keep our nation safe and have increased instability abroad,” Fitzpatrick’s statement read. “Most in the national security arena feel that, comparatively speaking, [Trump] is more likely to surround himself with a national security team that will be better able to protect our country.” (It’s a debatable assertion, however, given how many former Republican foreign-policy officials oppose a Trump presidency.)
But Fitzpatrick also implied that Trump hasn’t yet made the case for his candidacy. “Each has a long way to go to earn the trust of voters,” the statement read. It added that Fitzpatrick hoped Trump would provide more “policy specifics” at the Republican National Convention.
The 8th District race could become a test case of whether a certain type of Republican can win an open seat in a swing district despite Trump. As the congressman’s brother, Fitzpatrick not only has a good ballot name, but the incumbent’s support; a staffer from his brother’s congressional office accompanied him to one of his few interviews with the media, at a local newspaper office. In two campaign videos, Fitzpatrick talks while driving through the district, playing up his working-class roots. “Levittown’s own,” reads a Fitzpatrick ad on the local news site LevittownNow.com. The race is getting a lot of attention from donors. Santarsiero has received $343,270 from PACs since spring 2015, while Fitzpatrick, who started his campaign this year, has $287,620 in PAC money, according to their most recent campaign-finance reports.
Supporters talk up Fitzpatrick’s résumé, especially attractive for security-minded voters: he’s a CPA and attorney, was first in his class at the FBI’s academy in Quantico and investigated political corruption cases and terrorism. The FBI deployed him to Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iraq. Pat Poprik, chair of the Bucks County Republican Committee, says Fitzpatrick told her he interrogated terrorists in Afghanistan.
“He has a very good handle on what the threats are and what we need to do as a nation to address them,” says Robert Loughery, chair of the Bucks County Commission, who met him 20 years ago when Fitzpatrick served on the Republican state committee.
Fitzpatrick is embracing some elements of Trump’s unusual Republican candidacy while rejecting others. Like Trump, he’s stressing national security issues, supporting “a physical barrier” at the border, and opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “Growing up in Levittown, I saw firsthand how unfair trade agreements devastated the family-sustaining jobs of my neighbors,” Fitzpatrick said in his statement.
Unlike Trump, who has called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese, Fitzpatrick told a reporter he would support “every measure possible” to curb carbon emissions. It’s a savvy move in Bucks County where voters are pro-environment and both parties have supported extensive land-preservation programs for two decades. But Santarsiero, who’s also running on a platform of fighting climate change, blasts Fitzpatrick for saying at a forum that he doesn’t think global warming is manmade.
Pennsylvania’s 8th District is an exotic political species: a swing congressional district nearly untouched by gerrymandering. For decades, its boundaries have barely changed: It’s all of Bucks County (population 625,000), plus various little squiggles on the side. It was even spared in Pennsylvania’s last redistricting, considered the nation’s most ruthless. (The 7th District, next door, is a ridiculously unnatural shape that the Washington Post nicknamed “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.”)
Bucks County Republican leaders asked the state GOP to keep the 8th whole, to help them hold onto their shrinking partisan advantage there. Republicans used to dominate voter registration in the county. Now, there are slightly more registered Democrats, but they’re less likely to show up to vote.
“It’s traditionally, historically Republican,” says Poprik, the Bucks County Republican chair. Her office, in an 1869 building in Doylestown, the county seat, represents the GOP’s long history of dominance. It’s filled with 700 elephant figurines — wood, ceramic and jade, Egyptian and Indian. Nearby stands a picture of Poprik with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (Trenton, New Jersey’s capital, is less than 30 miles away) and Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick.
Bucks County, closely divided between suburban and rural, could illuminate Trump’s effect on the national battle for Congress. Locals think of it in three parts. Lower Bucks, a Democratic stronghold, includes Levittown and other working-class Philadelphia suburbs. Central Bucks—a growing patchwork of subdivisions, historic towns, big-box shopping centers and preserved farmland—is a swing area, middle class and politically independent. Upper Bucks is very rural and mostly Republican.
“In Bucks County, you can’t be all left, and can’t be all right,” says Loughery, the Republican county commissioner. “It’s a center-to-right area.”
After one term in Congress, Fitzpatrick was nudged out of his seat by a Democrat in 2006, then won it back in 2010. “He was true to himself and his district,” Poprik says. He’s a rare Republican opponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a reflection of Bucks County’s support for environmental conservation. He ran 6 points ahead of Mitt Romney across the district in 2012, and did even better in Levittown, where he lives.
A believer in term limits, Fitzpatrick has stuck to his pledge to leave Congress after four terms, though Poprik and other Republicans tried to talk him out of it. Instead, he made calls late last year to line up his brother as a successor. (The congressman’s office did not make him available for an interview.)
The elder Fitzpatrick is reluctantly supporting Trump. “What are the choices?” he said in May. “I’m going to support the candidate that puts reasonable conservatives on the Supreme Court.”
The district’s inherent moderateness is probably why Brian Fitzpatrick is keeping his distance from Trump, thinks Tina Davis, a Democratic state representative from Lower Bucks. “[Republicans] in my area are moderate Republicans,” she says. “He’s smart, not coming out all the way.”
Poprik argues Trump could help Fitzpatrick, not hurt him. Voter turnout doubled in Bucks County’s Republican primary compared with 2012. “[Trump is] bringing people out to vote who have never voted before,” she says. “That’s an opportunity for Brian.”
Davis acknowledges that a lot of men in her working-class district want to vote for Trump. “They don’t feel they’re getting what they need from politicians as far as helping their family,” she says.
But Diane Ellis-Marseglia, a Levittown Democrat on the county commission, thinks any voters Trump attracts in Levittown will be outnumbered by voters he repels elsewhere. “He’s insane,” she says. “He’s an embarrassment. Intelligent conservatives are not going to vote for someone who acts like that.” She thinks many anti-Trump voters will also reject Brian Fitzpatrick. “Some people,” she says, “know that Brian isn’t Mike, and [will] be somewhat insulted by the fact that somebody can just come in and run on their brother’s name. … You just can’t pop in and claim you know things—sort of like Trump.”
That’s how John Shelly, a registered Republican from Sellersville in Upper Bucks, reacts to the GOP ticket. “I’m ready for change, we need change, but I won’t vote for Trump,” says the retired building contractor on a stroll through the Quakertown Farmers Market. He would’ve voted for John Kasich over Clinton, but Trump’s negativity and mockery of people turned him off. “He’s not qualified,” Shelly says. “What choice do you have? I guess I’ll vote for Clinton. I don’t want to.”
He’s met Mike Fitzpatrick, likes him, and thinks he’s done a good job in Congress. “But bringing his brother in?” Shelly waves his hand, dismissing the nepotism. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s an outsider. What’s he know about this area and what’s good for us? Who knows him?”
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