While Democrats around the country look forward to taking on Republicans in swing congressional districts, Bucks County voters these days are seeing Democrats trading punches with each other.
A military veteran and a self-funded millionaire are battling in the Democratic primary for the right take on U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who replaced his brother in the seat two years ago and kept the family name in Congress.
Fitzpatrick is the only one of three Republicans in the Pennsylvania suburbs of Philadelphia who’s seeking re-election in what could be a big Democratic year.
Delaware County U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan’s hopes vanished after it emerged he’d settled a sexual harassment claim, and Chester County U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello decided not to seek re-election after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s redistricting left him running uphill in a more Democrat-friendly district.
For a long time, it seemed, no Democrat would stand up to take on Fitzpatrick. In October, Rachel Reddick, a 33-year-old former Navy prosecutor stepped up.
Her campaign photos emphasize her military experience, often depicting her in front of a battleship.
Reddick lacked political experience and money, but not determination.
In January another candidate emerged — Scott Wallace, a wealthy progressive philanthropist. He’s a grandson of Henry Wallace, a vice president under Franklin Roosevelt and a socialist candidate for president in 1948.
Wallace dropped $900,000 of his family fortune into the campaign. He was soon sending direct mail pieces and later ran a TV ad telling Democratic voters something they might not know about Reddick: She was “a lifelong registered Republican” who became a Democrat only seven weeks before running for Congress.
In an interview, Reddick said she grew up in a Republican family and registered with the GOP when she turned 18. Her views have evolved over the years, she said, as she went to college, entered the military, and worked with survivors of domestic violence.
Reddick said she didn’t pay much attention to her registration, that she was a Republican on the voter rolls, but not in her heart. Wallace knows that, she said.
“Scott very well knows that I have voted for Democrats, volunteered for Democrats,” Reddick said. “He knows that I voted for President Obama, that I voted for Secretary Clinton, and he knows the values that I hold.”
Reddick, who said she volunteered on the Clinton presidential campaign, finally swung back at Wallace in a hard-hitting TV ad.
“Scott Wallace isn’t one of us,” an announcer says in the ad. “Until last year, he was registered to vote at his mansion in Maryland and directed ballots to his home in South Africa, in a gated luxury estate.”
I asked Wallace about the ad.
“The photos she included in the ads are not my home,” Wallace said. “I assume they’re clip art off the internet.”
It is true that he grew up in Bucks County, but has been away for decades.
He went to Washington at age 27 where he worked on the staff of two Senate committees. For the past dozen years, he has run his family foundation, the Wallace Global Fund, that pursued progressive causes across the world.
“Yes, I have commuted between Washington, D.C., and southern Africa,” Wallace said. “Our foundation is quite active in building democracy in South Africa and Zimbabwe — and fighting female genital mutilation all over the world.”
Wallace said he’s proud of that work, and that he’s now back in Bucks County, living in the house where he grew up.
Reddick’s years as a registered Republican may give pause to some Democratic primary voters. But in a general election in this swing district, she said, her background in the GOP and in the military could help against the Republican incumbent.
“We need people of all backgrounds,” Reddick said. “We need Republicans and independents and Democrats alike, who are tired of the political process, to come to the voting booth in November and choose something different.”
She also noted that the district has never sent a woman to Congress.
“Right now, in the year of the woman, it is important that we’re lifting up and listening to women’s voices,” she said.
Wallace has his own argument to make about the general election – that with his independent wealth, he can assure voters he doesn’t need special interest money.
“I’m not going to take money from Goldman Sachs or from the health insurance industry or the internet industry,” Wallace said. “And I think it’s important for my supporters, my voters, to know that I owe nothing to anybody except them.’
Counting the family money he’s invested in his race, Wallace has raised about $1.1 million, more than three times the $307,000 Reddick has put together since last fall.
There’s a third candidate in the Democratic primary, environmental activist Steve Bacher.
The $44,000 he’s raised hasn’t permitted him to launch direct mail or TV ads, but he said he’s staying positive, knocking on doors and using Facebook Live and other tools to build momentum.
“I’m running a race focused on the issues, and people like that,” Bacher said. “There was a feature article in the Courier Times … and now people are coming up to me and saying that they hadn’t heard of me before, but now that they’ve heard about me they like me.
“We are doing fundraising, and we will have advertising closer to the primary.”
In 2016, while Brian Fitzpatrick won easily in Bucks County, Hillary Clinton just edged out Donald Trump in the presidential vote.
Since then, the district was redrawn by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a way that brings in a few more Democratic voters, so it could be a more competitive district come November.
The primary election is May 15.