‘He’s dangerous’ — House race in Pa. heats up as candidates aim to define each other

‘He’s  dangerous’ — House race in Pa. heats up as candidates aim to define each other
© Greg Nash

Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickThe 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker Bipartisan group of lawmakers invites colleagues to tour DC's Holocaust museum MORE, one of the most vulnerable lawmakers in the country, is ratcheting up his rhetoric against his Democratic challenger, labeling him as “dangerous.”

Fitzpatrick has blasted Scott Wallace, a philanthropist who largely self-funded his Democratic primary bid, as a wealthy partisan, claiming he is unable to connect with swing voters in the suburban Philadelphia district.

“I think he’s dangerous, I do. From what I know of him, he’s sort of everything I’ve been working against here,” Fitzpatrick said during an interview with The Hill last week from the U.S. Capitol.

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“He’s a far-left, partisan ideologue and he’s very disconnected,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that in Washington there are too many “multimillionaires and partisan extremists, on both sides. He’s both.”


Wallace fired back in an interview, asserting that Fitzpatrick isn’t taking a firm stance on President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE and that his choice to accept money from corporate donors clouds decisions he’s made in Congress.

“I’ll tell you what’s dangerous — dangerous is a member of the legislature who is for sale to the highest corporate bidder,” Wallace said, arguing that his own personal wealth will free him from being beholden to donors.

The back-and-forth is just the opening act in what is expected to be one of the closest House races in the November midterm elections, a battle in the broader war for suburban voters taking place across the country.

“This is going to be one of the most competitive races in the country,” said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia Democratic strategist. “To use Dan Rather’s phrase—it’s going to be as tight as a tube sock.”

Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, is fighting for his political life in a district that could be ripe for a surge by Democratic voters in the fall. He was first elected in 2016 after his brother, former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R), stepped aside.

The younger Fitzpatrick was already gearing up for a tough reelection this year when the state Supreme Court redrew Pennsylvania’s congressional map in February, giving Democrats a boost across the state.

Fitzpatrick’s district wasn’t heavily changed, but it moved slightly in favor of Democrats. The party now has a voter registration advantage of 10,000 people in a district Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhy Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm MORE won by 2 points in the 2016 presidential election.

A recent Monmouth University poll found the contest virtually tied, and the race is one of the 24 rated by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report as a “toss up.”

Speaking to The Hill, Fitzpatrick framed himself as an independent voice willing to buck both party and president, saying he has a “disdain for political parties and partisan politics” that he developed from his time investigating corrupt politicians.

He highlighted his vote against the GOP plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare last year, as well as a new analysis from Georgetown University that found him the third most bipartisan member of the House by voting record.

“I’m trying to take pragmatic approaches. Political consultants will tell you that makes them nervous because you don’t fit squarely into any box, sort of in that amorphous middle,” he said. “In order to show courage, sometimes it means making yourself vulnerable for short-term things like elections.”

Wallace, who is embracing progressive values heading into the general election, has pushed back at Fitzpatrick’s claims of centrism and willingness to buck Trump.

He pointed to Fitzpatrick’s score on FiveThirtyEight, which shows that the Republican voted with Trump 84 percent of the time in Congress. He specifically called out Fitzpatrick’s vote for the GOP tax plan as a way to link him to Trump.

“The tax bill is a leading exemplar about how Trump and Fitzpatrick [have] betrayed the working class that voted for them,” Wallace said. “What I am offering is a chance to bring accountability to an administration whose modus operandi is to tend to the special interests of corporations and the Trump family.”

Trump will clearly loom large in the race, as Democrats are hopeful that suburban areas like Fitzpatrick’s 1st District will break their way in November. Those hopes were bolstered by the 2017 elections, when the party made serious gains in local government seats that Democrats hadn’t won in decades.

Fitzpatrick has sought to distance himself from Trump by pointing to his bipartisan voting record and his approach to special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s investigation. Fitzpatrick is a co-sponsor of a bill that would make it harder for Trump to fire Mueller, and he has lamented Trump’s criticism of the FBI.

“Most people in our district would tell you I am a check on Trump,” Fitzpatrick told The Hill. “It’s dangerous to be voting on the legislative branch based on what is going on with the executive branch.”

Meanwhile, Wallace criticized Fitzpatrick during an interview Monday for not taking an early stand against the Trump administration’s policy that separates children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“He cannot find his voice when Trump, on a daily basis, tells lies, violates human rights and human values,” Wallace said. “That is not something that impresses people in this district.”

Hours after Wallace spoke to The Hill, Fitzpatrick called the family separation policy “heartless and inhumane” in a statement to The New York Times, saying the practice should end.

The Pennsylvania fight is drawing huge spending from both parties as they seek to define the two candidates.

On the right, the Congressional Leadership Fund is spending $4.1 million to boost Fitzpatrick, while the National Republican Congressional Committee has reserved $7.8 million in advertising time for the Philadelphia market, some of which will be used to support the incumbent.

On the left, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC have booked about $4.7 million in total television time.

Republicans are racing to try to define Wallace, including hammering him for a report that surfaced days after his primary victory that showed his family foundation made donations to groups that support a boycott of Israel.

Wallace’s campaign has distanced the candidate from the donations, arguing he had no direct oversight of the foundation arm that made the grants and that he “strongly supports the state of Israel” and “disavows” the boycott push.

Fitzpatrick has also enjoyed added name recognition, running for reelection in a district his brother represented for four terms in Congress. The recent Monmouth poll also found the incumbent with a 53 percent favorability rating.

For their part, Democrats hope added enthusiasm in the fall will help them vanquish the incumbent.

“Fitzpatrick has done a good job in maintaining a personal popularity ... but that may not be enough to save him,” said Balaban, the Democratic strategist.

“You can point to a number of examples of people, particularly new legislators, who are liked and established a deep bond,” he said. “But at this time of increased partisanship, when there’s a strong wind in the other direction, it’s very helpful to be well liked, but it’s not always enough.”