This is the second part in a two-part series on the race for Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District seat. Click through to read part one focusing on Republican candidate Brian Fitzpatrick.
Democratic state Rep. Steve Santarsiero was late.
“I apologize that it took me a little longer to get here today,” he told two dozen 8th District residents assembled at the Dubliner on Delaware. “As I hope you heard, we had a session in Harrisburg.”
After a day of voting in the Capitol, Santarsiero was making a campaign stop at the Irish pub in New Hope, hosted by the local chamber of commerce. As the only toss-up U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania, competition for the Bucks and Montgomery County district has attracted national interest money and attention since last year.
Santarsiero faces Republican candidate Brian Fitzpatrick, who stopped by the event earlier. Fitzpatrick is a former FBI agent running on national security — and is brother to retiring incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick.
In April, Santarsiero, a four-term state representative, defeated businesswoman Shaughnessy Naughton for the Democratic nomination.
Promising a progressive agenda
Running as a progressive, Santarsiero has fought to expand background checks for gun owners and to limit the role of money in politics.
Speaking to the crowd assembled at the pub, he said he’ll continue those fights if he’s sent to Washington.
“It matters that we have someone who is fighting for reasonable gun-safety legislation. It matters that we have someone who is fighting for investments in education — both early childhood education and access to higher education.”
Before holding office, Santarsiero spent a decade as a lawyer. After 9/11, he changed careers to teach high school social studies in Bensalem. Following a fight to keep a development from encroaching on open space in Lower Makefield, he won a seat on the supervisors board for that township in 2003.
While the presidential race has dominated political coverage, crucial federal races like this one will be decided by uncommitted voters in small rooms like this one.
Independent Kevin Lovell lives in the district but owns a manufacturing business with about 20 employees in New Jersey. He said he’s concerned about the costs of providing health care to his employees.
“It would be easier for me to say, ‘I’m not offering health care anymore. Go get Obamacare,'” he said.
His company’s tab for health care goes up every year, he said, but with costs also rising for individuals using the Affordable Care Act marketplace, he doesn’t want to kick them off.
“Where do you stand on that,” he asked Santarsiero.
“The Affordable Care Act has done a good job of expanding coverage,” said the candidate. To control costs, “one of the things I think would be helpful to bring those insurance costs down would be a public option.” He also said he supports a policy for Medicare to negotiate for prescription drug costs.
Changes to Obamacare will be a tall order facing the next Congress and president.
Experience in gridlock, questions on accomplishments
If elected, Santarsiero would be stepping into a similar — or worse — level of gridlock in Washington than he’s faced in Harrisburg. He’d also be a member of the minority party again, a sizable disadvantage for pushing through legislation in Washington’s heavily partisan atmosphere.
One of the most salient criticisms of his record so far has been that he didn’t get enough legislative work done during eight years as a state representative to earn a promotion.
“His campaign brags about his accomplishments, but in fact, he has failed in 54 attempts to get any legislation on the books,” hammered an attack ad during the Democratic primary race.
After that attack, Santarsiero’s campaign manager clarified some of the language in his mailers, which could be interpreted as giving him credit for legislation that did not pass.
Without signature legislation to his name, the Democrat campaigns on his success in lobbying for amendments to bills and on the kind of work legislators do outside the Capitol — such as advocating for their district.
“When there were regular power outages in Bucks County, I advocated, I went down to PECO and ultimately got them to upgrade their system and be aggressive about trimming vegetation,” Santarsiero said in an interview.
Hoping to reform blurry campaign finance law in Harrisburg, he also fought for an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would have made it harder to spend government dollars on campaigning. It didn’t pass, but did become a part of the ethics rules for the Pennsylvania House.
In Washington, Santarsiero said, he would focus on convincing companies to move to the district and add to the number of bodies representing progressive interests.
A costly campaign
At the federal level, Republicans are likely to keep their comfortable majority in the House of Representatives — but that isn’t stopping them from spending huge sums to defeat Democrats trying to increase their numbers.
Both sides are spending big in the 8th District, said Terry Madonna, political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, in part because television ads in the region are expensive.
“You’re in the fourth-largest television market in the country,” he said. “Buying ads on Philadelphia TV, as we say in Lancaster County, ain’t cheap.”
The campaign finance website Open Secrets has the race in the top 10 most expensive congressional competitions in the country.
Sources close to both campaigns say national partisan groups are spending upwards of $5 million in ads just for the two weeks before Election Day.
Ads don’t always have a huge impact, but Madonna said another factor could tip the balance.
“Clinton is going to do well in the Philadelphia suburbs.”
Trump, he said, is down by 20 points in some suburban Philadelphia counties. The 8th District was redrawn in 2011 to exclude parts of Democratic Montgomery County and Philadelphia, he said, making a flip to a Democratic seat unlikely without a big boost at the top of the ticket.
Two weeks before the election, sources close to both 8th District candidates said campaign polls show a very tight race.