SCRANTON, Pa. ― Two House races in Pennsylvania show the diminished value of Donald Trump’s brand as the president pins his hopes of reelection on another Keystone State upset.
A Republican up for reelection in a district Trump lost in 2016 is struggling to distinguish himself from the embattled president. And a Democrat up for reelection in a district that Trump won finds no political risk in publicly criticizing the president.
Rep. Matt Cartwright, 59, a Democrat up for reelection in a blue-collar swath of northeastern Pennsylvania where Trump won, is heavily favored in his race, despite a relatively liberal record that includes a vote to impeach Trump. While Cartwright has eschewed the rhetorical bomb-throwing of his colleagues in more solidly Democratic seats, he does not shy away from criticizing Trump on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs, Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, 46, won’t so much as say for whom he plans to vote in the presidential election. Unlike other Republicans in the Philadelphia area, Fitzpatrick survived Democrats’ 2018 midterm election wave thanks to some moderate policy stances and a broad coalition. But even with a cash advantage over his latest Democratic challenger and a family name that makes him political nobility in Bucks County, Fitzpatrick is locked in a tight race.
The two incumbents ― one a Democrat, the other a Republican ― have taken great pains to cultivate independent images that resonate with their constituents regardless of national trends.
But in the end, neither of them can escape Trump’s impact, according to Mark Nevins, a Democratic campaign consultant based in Philadelphia.
“There almost isn’t a single race you can run this year where Trump isn’t a significant factor,” Nevins said.
‘A Great Disappointment In The Current Administration’
Trump beat Hillary Clinton by almost 10 percentage points in Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District in 2016. The victory in the historically Democratic region in northeast Pennsylvania, which includes the former industrial cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, was emblematic of the inroads Trump had made with white working-class voters, including many rank-and-file members of labor unions that had endorsed Clinton.
But Cartwright, a Democrat, has managed to survive the formerly coal-rich region’s shifting political tides with relative ease. He was reelected in the 8th by 7 points in 2016, and 9 points in 2018. Cartwright estimates that 33,000 of his constituents voted for both Trump and him in 2016, and he welcomes them to split their tickets again.
When HuffPost asked Cartwright why his constituents had opted for Trump, he had a simple explanation: The decadeslong decline of the coal mining and manufacturing economy has kept the region’s unemployment rate higher than that of the state as a whole ― and people are hungry to change that, he said.
“The pain level is higher around here. And when you’re hurting, you vote for the candidate of change. That’s why President Obama did well. He was the change candidate,” Cartwright said. “And in 2016, there was no way on God’s green Earth that Secretary Hillary Clinton could make herself the change candidate.”
Asked what he made of a suggestion by some Democrats ― including top Clinton campaign aides ― that Trump won because of his appeals to people’s white supremacy, Cartwright paused before mustering a polite objection.
“Anybody who calls my constituents white supremacists ― I beg to differ,” he said.
He said that. He promised that. It didn’t happen. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.)
Cartwright, a mild-mannered trial attorney, has blazed an unusual path to four consecutive victories in a House seat with a demographic makeup that has made it an attractive target for Republicans.
He originally won his seat in 2012 when redistricting forced centrist Democratic Rep. Tim Holden into a more liberal district. Running as a progressive from “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” Cartwright defeated Holden in the primary and went on to win the general election handily.
Cartwright is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has been a co-sponsor of single-payer health care legislation since 2014. Having won his primary as an advocate for closing the “Halliburton loophole” that exempts natural gas fracking from federal regulation, he remains a champion of legislation that would subject the practice to official national scrutiny.
But Cartwright, who has a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, tends to emphasize bipartisan compromise and securing federal support for local causes, like funding for abandoned mine cleanups and protecting jobs at an Army logistical depot, rather than partisan or ideological pronouncements.
Critically, Cartwright joins former Vice President Joe Biden in opposing a federal ban on fracking, which is a source of jobs, many of them union, in his district.
Fracking will eventually end, but “it’s going to be the free-market economy that makes the choice,” Cartwright said.
What’s more, Cartwright’s ads feature a promise to “bring jobs back from China” and a local former police chief praising Cartwright for securing additional funding for law enforcement. He doesn’t mention Trump in any of them.
It’s a marked contrast with other Democrats running for reelection in districts Trump won, like Staten Island Rep. Max Rose. In one of Rose’s TV ads, he touts his agreement with Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Instead, Cartwright tends to speak about Trump with the frustration of a prospective friend who has been let down.
The absence of an infrastructure bill has “been a great disappointment in the current administration,” Cartwright told over a dozen members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 445, who were phone-banking in mid-October for Biden, Cartwright and a Democratic state senator at their union hall in Scranton.
“He was in charge of all the levers of power ― the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives ― his first two years,” Cartwright added. “Infrastructure? Nothing. Why? I don’t understand why.”
The Carpenters union, which counts 1,000 members in Local 445 and about 20,000 in Pennsylvania, is among the more moderate labor unions in the country.
Many of the union’s members voted for Trump in 2016. And this cycle, the union believes that its members’ views track closely with polls of the national electorate as a whole, among whom Biden’s lead is substantial but not enormous.
In his remarks at the union hall, Cartwright expressed empathy for those union members who had cast a ballot for the current president.
“A lot of your guys voted for Donald Trump. And I don’t blame them one bit. Because Trump was going to be the candidate of change ― he was going to be the builder, he was the developer, he knew how to build smarter than anybody,” Cartwright said. “He said that. He promised that. It didn’t happen.”
Of course, House Democrats still expect Cartwright to outperform Biden in the district. So steering clear of criticizing Trump, even in front of a friendly audience, might have been an easier path.
Jim Bognet, a veteran Republican political operative and former Trump administration official who is challenging Cartwright, has tried to make an issue out of Cartwright’s vote for impeachment. He pronounced Cartwright “toast” after the pivotal vote and has highlighted the decision in a TV ad. Bognet’s campaign did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment about the race.
But Cartwright’s confidence that he won’t pay a price for spurning the president speaks to just how far the president has fallen in the predominantly white, working-class districts that carried him to victory in 2016. In an internal polling memo that the Bognet campaign released in mid-October to show his chances improving, the campaign nonetheless had Trump trailing Biden by 2 percentage points in the district.
A Pro-Labor Republican Who Dares Not Speak Trump’s Name
In Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District, some 100 miles south of Pennsylvania’s 8th, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick managed to pull off the inverse feat from Cartwright.
Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, had the advantage of running to succeed his brother, Mike, who had represented the area from 2005 to 2007 and again from 2011 to 2017.
But aware that he represented a purple district, which encompasses all of Bucks County and a small sliver of Montgomery County, at a time when the suburbs were growing more liberal, Fitzpatrick found ways to buck his party on several key votes and policy stances. He voted against the House’s bill repealing the Affordable Care Act, embraced moderate gun safety regulations, cozied up to organized labor, vowed to protect Social Security, and became involved in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
Fitzpatrick’s efforts to triangulate paid off in 2018, which was otherwise a Democratic wave year. In Pennsylvania alone, Democrats picked up four House seats.
In the interim, Fitzpatrick has doubled down on his “independent” brand. After fending off a challenge from his right during the primary, Fitzpatrick refuses to say for which presidential candidate he plans to vote on Election Day. He told The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose editorial board has endorsed his reelection, that he plans to make a decision in the voting booth on Election Day. (Fitzpatrick, whose campaign declined to make him or an aide available on the record, claims to have written in Mike Pence for president in 2016.)
Going a step further than opposing repeal of the ACA, Fitzpatrick now calls himself an outright supporter of the law. In a TV ad, Fitzpatrick’s mother, a breast cancer survivor, vouches for her son’s commitment to the law’s protections for people with preexisting conditions, noting that Fitzpatrick “stood up to his own party” on the matter. She also promises that Fitzpatrick will protect Social Security and Medicare because he knows how important those programs are to seniors like her.
Fitzpatrick’s support for tougher regulations of industrial chemicals that end up in water sources has even won him some environmental support. This cycle, the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund has endorsed him.
In addition, Fitzpatrick is one of just five House Republicans to vote in favor of the PRO Act, a bill that would dramatically increase federal penalties for company interference in unionization and prohibit right-to-work laws that bar unions from compelling dues payment from workers they are obligated to represent. The vote has won him the endorsement, once again, of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.
Even as the Carpenters union was mobilizing its members to phone-bank for Biden and Cartwright in northeast Pennsylvania, in Bucks County, members of Local 167 were making calls for Biden and Fitzpatrick. The union cites Fitzpatrick’s vote for the PRO Act as evidence that they can rely on him.
Bob Simons, a staunch Democrat from Bensalem and politically active member of Local 167, plans to vote for Fitzpatrick.
“Some people ― they tell me that my view is too simplistic about who I vote for,” Simons said. “But I have always just voted in the union’s best interests because, in turn, it’s my best interest.”
It’s something of a surprise then that Fitzpatrick is again in a tight matchup ― this time against Democrat Christina Finello, a lawyer who works for Bucks County.
Recent public polls in the district show a neck-and-neck race, though the firms that conducted the surveys lean Democratic.
Still, Republican spending in the district suggests that the GOP sees it as a close contest as well.
It’s strictly the Trump effect that’s keeping these races competitive. Mark Nevins, Democratic campaign consultant
Although Fitzpatrick had spent nearly $2 million more than Finello as of mid-October, the national party, big business groups and at least one moderate union have flooded the race with additional money. The National Republican Congressional Committee, House Republicans’ campaign arm, has spent more than $1 million to reelect Fitzpatrick. The Congressional Leadership Fund, House Republicans’ main super PAC, has spent nearly $3 million. In all, outside groups have spent $6.2 million on support for Fitzpatrick, compared with $2.9 million for Finello.
The reason for Republicans’ alarm comes down to Trump’s poor standing in the district, where Democrats expect to improve on their 2016 margin. High Democratic turnout, particularly among infrequent voters showing up to vote Trump out, could lead to an uptick in single-party voting up and down the ballot.
“He could end up losing and it’s not because he should have done something different,” he said. “It’s strictly the Trump effect that’s keeping these races competitive.”
Finello, who has the backing of pro-choice groups and more progressive labor unions like the Service Employees International Union, is doing her best to chip away at Fitzpatrick’s moderate branding.
The campaign notes that Fitzpatrick has taken plenty of anti-union votes, earning him a lifetime score of just 58% from the national AFL-CIO. And his vote in favor of the Trump tax cuts repealed the ACA’s individual insurance mandate. In a bid to overturn the entire ACA, the Trump administration is now arguing to the Supreme Court that Congress’ elimination of the individual mandate effectively invalidated the rest of the health care law as well.
Finally, in a suburban district where many voters remain supportive of abortion rights, Finello is hammering Fitzpatrick as an opponent of women’s rights. Fitzpatrick’s anti-abortion record includes a vote for a 2017 bill to criminalize abortion 20 weeks into a pregnancy without exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother.
“Brian Fitzpatrick has been a reliable vote for the Trump agenda when Republicans need him most,” Finello campaign manager Alli Anderson said in a statement. “Fitzpatrick sided with Trump against reproductive freedom, sided with Trump in downplaying the pandemic, and sided with Trump on the disastrous tax bill that could strip healthcare from people with pre-existing conditions.”
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