Right after winning his fourth term in office, Bucks County Republican Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick announced it would be his last.
That self-imposed term limit created an opening in Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, one of a handful of seats this election cycle that both parties think they can win.
Taking enough of these competitive districts can tip the partisan balance in Congress, with far-reaching effects on policy and how smoothly the wheels of government grind.
On April 26, voters in Bucks and some parts of Montgomery County will cast ballots in both party primaries, setting the stage for a general election battle. This is part one, the story of a seat the Republicans want very much to keep.
In the year following Fitzpatrick’s announcement, four Republican candidates threw their hats into the ring, including early party favorite, state Rep. Scott Petri.
Everything changed in January when a latecomer entered the race: the congressman’s younger brother and former FBI agent, Brian Fitzpatrick.
Less than two weeks later, Petri dropped out of the race.
“In order for us to be successful in November, it is important that we have a strong and unified party,” he posted to his campaign’s Facebook page. Fitzpatrick, who had been challenging Petri for support from party committees across the county, became the instant front-runner.
Fitzpatrick’s campaign rarely made him available to the media then, and he still has never granted NewsWorks an interview.
While party support has unified behind a familiar name, two candidates — former Bucks County Commissioner Andy Warren and businessman Marc Duome — seek to upend Fitzpatrick’s aspirations.
At a recent forum hosted by the tea party group Citizens for a Constitutional Government, the three GOP candidates made their pitches to voters in an echoing conference room at the Quakertown Free Library.
As a political newcomer, Fitzpatrick is running on his professional experience as an accountant, lawyer, and as a special supervisory agent with the FBI.
“What I offer to the voters is a strong background and a ton of credibility in what I believe to be the issue on the ballot this year, national security,” he told the dozen or so people assembled. He is against the deal to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons that President Obama struck last year, and he favors building a physical barrier between the United States and Mexico.
He also presents himself as the rare Republican environmentalist, in favor of limiting carbon emissions.
As for reining in government spending, a question posed by members of Citizens for a Constitutional Government, Fitzpatrick proposed a three-pronged approach: “zero-based budgeting, single legislation bills, and a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget.”
Conservatives have unsuccessfully introduced bills to amend the Constitution to require the federal government to balance the budget annually. While supporters say it’s needed to curb unnecessary spending and reduce the size of a bloated government, critics point out it would drastically slow down the economy and could jeopardize programs in the country’s social safety net.
Having never run for office, Fitzpatrick casts himself as outside of party politics, even though he’s the Republican Party’s choice and the brother of the incumbent. He also claims in his campaign literature to have spent nearly 40 of his 42 years as a resident of the district, although his FBI posts included assignments in California and New York. The Bucks County Recorder of Deeds online database shows him purchasing a house in Bucks County for the first time in January of this year.
Competing for the title of outside reformer, is Duome, who is a neuropsychologist by training.
“I’m offering that conservative, problem-solving, common-sense approach to addressing spending, addressing our rights as citizens, protecting us,” he told the group at the Quakertown Library. Duome said that the Affordable Care Act must be repealed, and he committed to only serving three terms if elected.
Protecting the Second Amendment is another key issue for Duome, who has won the backing of an area gun rights group, Firearms Owners Against Crime.
And Warren offered himself up as a folksy, grassroots candidate who won’t take money from PACs outside of Bucks, but someone who could still win in a general election.
“You’re going perhaps to hear candidates say, ‘You should elect me because I can win’,” he said. “Well, I have won.” Speaking of his 16 years as a county commissioner, starting in 1979, he said, “I have been elected by Democrats, Republicans, and independents.”
In 2006, Warren switched parties to try to win the Democratic nomination for this very same seat in Congress. He lost in the primary.
Warren said he would boost the economy by investing in transportation infrastructure.
The playing field
While all candidates promised to be tough on immigration, enact strict voter identification laws, and work to restrict abortion, their similar stances do not indicate a level playing field.
The Bucks County GOP endorsed Fitzpatrick shortly after he announced his candidacy. His campaign also raised nearly $500,000 in campaign funds, 10 times more than any of the other candidates. (By way of comparison, campaign finance reports show Duome raised $8,451 in total; Warren’s report was not available online, but he puts his total amount between $45,000 and $50,000; Fitzpatrick has raised $452,199 to date.)
That does not include funds left in his brother’s PAC, which could potentially be deployed on his behalf in a general election.
In spite of this, Fitzpatrick continues to keep a low profile. Duome said that could be by design.
“People aren’t going to realize that the name is different,” he said. “The first name.”
Whoever wins the Republican nomination on April 26 will square off against a formidable Democrat with national funding and support, either businesswoman Shaughnessy Naughton or state Rep. Steve Santarsiero.
Wondering about the Democratic candidates? WHYY/NewsWorks’ Laura Benshoff will bring you their stories later this week.