In Bucks, U.S. Rep. Fitzpatrick getting challenged from the right and left

Both parties in Pa.’s 1st Congressional District are deciding between a moderate candidate, as they have before, or choosing a more partisan path.

Republican congressman Brian Fitzpatrick of Pa.’s 1st District. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Republican congressman Brian Fitzpatrick of Pa.’s 1st District. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

No matter which political party they belong to, voters in Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District have a similar choice in Tuesday’s primary election: stick with a moderate approach or opt for a more extreme policy shift.

The district, which covers all of Bucks County and part of Montgomery, has two contested primaries.

On the Republican side, incumbent U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is playing up his bipartisanship, while occasionally telegraphing closeness — but not too much closeness — with President Donald Trump’s administration. Meanwhile, his challenger, investment advisor Andy Meehan, couches himself as a staunch Trump supporter and frequently criticizes Fitzpatrick for siding with Democrats.

On the Democratic side, Bucks County solicitor and Ivyland Borough Councilmember

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Christina Finello is focusing her campaign on support for unions and working-class families, and wants to “protect and expand” the Affordable Care Act. Skylar Hurwitz, a tech consultant, is running to Finello’s left on a progressive platform centered around Medicare for All, canceling student debt and instituting paid family and sick leave.

On both sides, the match-up is a little unbalanced.

According to the candidates’ campaign filings, Fitzpatrick has far out-fundraised the rest of the field, and has spent $789,606 overall. Meehan has reported spending $59,050.

After a tumultuous path to choosing an establishment nominee, Finello got nods from mainstream Democratic groups, like the county Democratic committees, AFSCME District Council 47 and sitting Democratic lawmakers, like U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean.

Finello has reported spending $132,200 to Hurwitz’s $16,686, and said she thinks she’s received institutional support because she has “deep roots” in the 1st Congressional District, comes from a working-class union family and can speak to the district’s many moderate residents.

“I want to go to Washington for all those people out there in the middle,” she said. “The nurse, the teacher, the firefighter, the factory worker. They deserve a congresswoman who stands up for them, a government that works for them.”

Hurwitz, however, said he firmly believes fundraising won’t be the sole deciding factor in the primary. And he disagrees with Finello’s assessment of what the people in the district want and need.

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“A lot of these ideas are pretty populist. I wouldn’t classify them as just to the left,” he said of things like affordable higher education and health care. “People here in PA-01 are sick and tired of party politics … We need to be speaking to those underlying concerns and putting forward solutions.”

Hurwitz has won endorsements from groups like Demand Universal Healthcare and Progressive Rising.

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Though Meehan’s politics are fundamentally different from Hurwitz’s — he is concerned about second amendment rights and security at the country’s southern border — he’s trying to chart a similar, outside path. However, he has even less institutional support.

After interviewing Meehan, the Bucks County Republican Party declined to consider endorsing him, saying he’d lied about a 2007 DUI conviction, tried to secretly record the party’s endorsement meeting and had previously made “discriminatory statements” on social media.

The Montgomery County GOP, which represents a small part of the congressional district, joined that decision. Meehan maintains the remarks deemed racist and discriminatory by the county parties were taken out of context.

He said his fundamental goal in this election is to carry on what he sees as Trump’s legacy.

“It just so happens that we’ve got a transformational leader in President Trump, who is trying to take us back to those principles of limited government and liberty and cleaning up that swamp that’s down in Washington, which I think is completely out of control,” he said.

Meehan is focusing specifically on all the areas where Fitzpatrick sided with Democrats — the congressman supports a carbon tax, hasn’t supported the president’s efforts to build a wall on the southern border, and has favored gun control measures.

“Congressman Fitzpatrick … completely ignores the base of his party,” Meehan said. “This is why I’m going to win the primary … He plays to the other side.”

Fitzpatrick was the only candidate who didn’t agree to an interview ahead of the primary. A spokesperson didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

The congressman was elected in 2016 to the same district that was represented by his older brother, Michael Fitzpatrick. He held on to it in 2018 after Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ordered all the state’s districts to be redrawn due to partisan gerrymandering they said favored Republicans, even as other suburban Philadelphia districts went to Democrats.

Fitzpatrick often touts the bipartisan nature of much of his work in Washington. As Congress responded to COVID-19 over the past several months, he co-chaired the House Coronavirus Task Force, pushed a bill to extend federal contributions to children’s health insurance with Democratic colleague Susan Wild, and, among other things, put his name on a measure that would allow the National Labor Relations Board to hold electronic elections, so workers can remotely unionize during the pandemic.

But even as he branched off from President Trump and other Republicans, Fitzpatrick — lately, anyway — has telegraphed closeness with the administration.

He met with Trump to discuss legislation during the president’s most recent Pennsylvania visit, and echoed his rhetoric blaming China for the spread of the new coronavirus in his campaign messaging.

A recent ad intones that China is “stealing our jobs … [and] trying to steal our future.” It concludes that Fitzpatrick is “fighting to make China pay for the damage caused by coronavirus.”

The congressman did stop short, however, of truly tying himself to Trump — telling The Philadelphia Inquirer he doesn’t yet know who he’ll vote for in November.

Though the district is more competitive than most in Pennsylvania, analysts have predicted that if Fitzpatrick wins the primary, he’ll have a solid shot at keeping the seat.

For now, the Cook Political Report has ranked the race as “leans Republican.”

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