High stakes brawl in Bucks congressional race

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Candidates for Pennsylvania's 1st Congressional District, incumbent Republican Brian Fitzpatrick (left) and Democrat Scott Wallace. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Candidates for Pennsylvania's 1st Congressional District, incumbent Republican Brian Fitzpatrick (left) and Democrat Scott Wallace. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The battle for control of the House of Representatives this year will come down to a relative handful of congressional seats around the country.

None are more hotly-contested or closely-watched than the race for the 1st Congressional District in Bucks County, where incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick faces a challenge from Democrat Scott Wallace.

Both candidates in the race are pretty accomplished people.

Both went to law school. Fitzpatrick spent 18 years in the FBI before going to Congress. Wallace was a staffer in the Senate, then spent two decades running his family foundation.

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But the campaign has become a high-stakes brawl, with more than $18 million spent so far, much of it on attack ads which paint the candidates as misguided, dishonest, or dangerously radical.

Like most political ads, they traffic in cherry-picked facts and exaggerated or out-of-context claims.

One ad from each side has been condemned by fact-checkers – a Wallace ad on Fitzpatrick’s record on health care, and a National Republican Congressional Committee spot attributing population control views to Wallace he’s never expressed.

This week, TV stations yanked an ad from a national Republican group called Defending Main Street because its claims about Wallace were such a stretch.

Addressing the issues

When the candidates met face to face Friday on a stage at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, the exchanges were sharp, but substantive.

Wallace criticized Fitzpatrick’s vote last December for the Trump tax package.

“I think it was utterly irresponsible to vote for the tax bill which exploded our debt by $2 trillion,” Wallace said. “I say make the rich pay their fair share.”

Fitzpatrick argued that only economic growth will generate revenue to meet critical needs and reduce the deficit, and that the tax cuts are working already.

“We have a 3.7 percent unemployment rate,” he said. “Walk down Mill Street in Bristol Borough [where there are] 58 storefronts or so. There are three vacancies, help wanted signs in every other store. That’s economic growth. That’s what we wanted to do,” said Fitzpatrick.

Both candidates said they want to preserve Social Security, and both claimed to be committed to protecting health coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Wallace said Fitzpatrick’s record shows his true partisan colors.

“Brian Fitzpatrick voted for the tax bill which, as Donald Trump said, cut the heart out of the Affordable Care Act, the repeal of the individual mandate,” Wallace said.

It’s true the tax bill effectively ended the personal mandate, and Wallace cited three procedural votes in which he said Fitzpatrick could have stood up for patients with pre-existing conditions, and didn’t.

A Washington Post analysis of that charge found those votes didn’t carry much weight and that Fitzpatrick’s vote against the repeal of Obamacare was far more important. In that case, Fitzpatrick went against President Trump and his party’s leaders on a close and important vote.

Declaring his independence

The Obamacare vote raises a key Fitzpatrick selling point – his independence, which he said was recognized in a national survey by the nonpartisan Lugar Center.

“You have the number one most independent congressman in the nation, that has managed to get both the AFL-CIO Working Families Endorsement, and the Chamber of Commerce,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick repeatedly cited his membership in the 48-member Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress (24 from each party), which has bi-partisan proposals on gun control, Social Security and other issues.

Wallace said that’s just talk.

“We have someone who says he’s a problem solver, but votes with Donald Trump 84, 85 percent of the time,” Wallace said.

Many Democrats say in this political climate, the single most important thing to consider about Fitzpatrick is his party. A vote for a Republican Speaker in January will ensure Republican control of committee assignments and the flow of legislation, they say, preventing measures of interest to Democrats from ever reaching a vote.

Fitzpatrick said all 48 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus have committed to voting only for a Speaker who’ll sign on to a set of reforms called the “Break the Gridlock” package, intended to democratize the house.

I asked Fitzpatrick what he’ll do if no Republican candidate for Speaker will commit to the package.

“And there’s a centrist Democrat who agrees to it? Yes, that’s a commitment we made as a caucus,” Fitzpatrick said, saying he would vote for a Democrat in those circumstances.

And what if no candidate from either party will commit to the rules?

“Well, we’re going to find someone,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s no point in being in an institution that’s broken. We’ve got to fix the system.”

It’s been an expensive race. Wallace has invested more than $8 million of his family fortune into the campaign.

National Republican groups have spent almost as much helping Fitzpatrick, generating some of the harshest personal attacks of the campaign.

Polls show the race is close in a district that two years ago elected Fitzpatrick, the Republican, but also narrowly went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

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