Philly-area GOP congressmen trying to keep distance from President Trump

While one prominent U.S. representative from South Jersey is running on the Trump record, most of the GOP members of Congress are distancing themselves from the president.

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Like several of his GOP colleagues in Congress, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks, is trying to maintain some distance from President Donald Trump. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Like several of his GOP colleagues in Congress, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks, is trying to maintain some distance from President Donald Trump. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick from Bucks County has racked up some legislative victories in his first term after taking over the seat from his brother. The former FBI agent has gotten a slew of his proposals aimed at combating the opioid crisis passed, and he voted against his party’s Obamacare repeal effort. Fitzpatrick says he’s proud of his record.

“I’m exactly where I need to be with the voters. Everybody who has been following this cycle and my voting record knows that,” he said. “They know that.”

But Fitzpatrick’s Democratic opponent is having none of that. A philanthropist and former congressional staffer, Scott Wallace has painted Fitzpatrick as a rubber stamp for President Donald Trump. While Fitzpatrick voted against the GOP health care bill, he supported the tax overhaul that killed the individual health insurance mandate, said Wallace, adding that the list only starts there.

“He’s voted to gut regulations on clean air and clean water and Wall Street — all while taking huge amounts of money from polluters and Wall Street. He is on Team Trump. He cannot deny it, although he tries to cling to this veneer of moderation,” Wallace said.

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That dynamic is on display nationwide, especially in some high-profile races across the Delaware River. In South Jersey, former Obama-era national security adviser Andrew Kim is challenging second-term Republican U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, who helped revive the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort in the House. Sitting in his headquarters in Marlton, Kim explained how MacArthur’s work on that propelled him into the race.

“It was the health care that pushed me into this,” he said. “Look, my father’s a polio survivor. I’m the father of two baby boys, one of which had significant health concerns in his young life already.”

After that controversial Obamacare repeal was defeated by one vote in the Senate, MacArthur became one of the top deal-makers on the GOP’s tax proposal. While he became the only New Jersey lawmaker in either party to vote for it, he maintains that his work on it helped salvage $10,000 worth of  state and local tax deductions  (called SALT for short) that is now law.

“The speaker, the president, and Mitch McConnell were all committed to eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes, completely eliminating it … and, in the end, a small number of us got everyone to agree to put $10,000 back in,” MacArthur said.

MacArthur said he has no regrets about his record this session, and he said he’s been willing to buck Trump at many turns.

“I supported Russia sanctions, I pushed back on efforts to end the Mueller investigation — there are a lot of things where I’ve had differences. But I don’t take cheap shots. I don’t take political shots to advantage myself. If I genuinely disagree, I say so … and the White House, I think, respects that. And I’ve been able to move some things,” MacArthur said.

While MacArthur and other Republicans in the area are trying to highlight their independent streaks, his challenger Kim isn’t buying it.

“So, we know exactly who he is. We know that his brand as a moderate and bipartisan member of Congress, that that’s fiction,” Kim said.

Capping those SALT deductions is why central New Jersey Republican U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance opposed the GOP tax bill — and he said it shows his moderate side.

“I fight always for my constituents, and I will continue to fight for it,” Lance said.

Lance is being challenged by Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state, who said Lance and his moderate streaks haven’t blunted the GOP agenda in the least.

“So, in terms of the results, we don’t see any,” Malinowksi said.

While casually sitting in his headquarters in Martinsville as a flock of young volunteers made phone calls outside, Malinowksi made his pitch to voters. It boils down to: “Put me in office, and I’ll rein in Trump.”

“President Trump’s agenda passes the Congress. There are no effective checks and balances, and I can’t think of a single effective thing that Congressman Lance has done to stand up to Trump. Tweets don’t count,” Malinowksi said.

Lance said he’s not just criticizing policies he doesn’t like. Like Fitzpatrick from Bucks County, he’s a part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who are promising to withhold their support for the next Speaker of the House from either party unless he or she vows to allow more input from rank-and-file lawmakers. For Lance, that’s because he says he wants votes on infrastructure, immigration and what he calls “sensible” gun reform proposals.

“All of these issues. But to get these substantive issues to the floor, we have to have procedural changes, and these are the procedural changes that we believe in a bipartisan capacity will lead to that,” Lance said.

Lance has also been calling out Malinowski as a carpetbagger. While he grew up in New Jersey, Malinowski has been living out of state, most recently in the Washington, D.C., area, until he returned and filed to run for Congress. Malinowski’s campaign has maintained that he only left New Jersey to serve the public — and that he returned to his hometown area to do the same.

The tango these Republican lawmakers from the region are trying to pull off is happening nationwide —   maintaining the GOP mantle while trying to keep enough distance between themselves and Trump to appeal to independent voters. Their Democratic challengers aren’t buying it, and they’re banking on voters siding with them when ballots are cast next month.

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