By Dan Merica, CNN
Matt Cartwright and Brian Fitzpatrick are political anomalies.
The two Eastern Pennsylvania congressmen come from different political parties: Cartwright is a Democrat from the Scranton area, while Fitzpatrick is a Republican from Southeastern Bucks County. But the political pressures they face are not that dissimilar. In 2020, despite Cartwright winning by more than 3 percentage points, former President Donald Trump carried his district. That same year, President Joe Biden won Fitzpatrick’s district but the Republican congressman won by a staggering 13 percentage points.
In an increasingly polarized country, where gerrymandering has created scores of districts where only one party can easily win, Cartwright and Fitzpatrick are unique: Only 16 members of the US House represent districts that voted for the opposing party’s presidential nominee in 2020, a markedly small number for a 435-person legislative body.
While both congressmen have long frustrated operatives from their opposing parties — Cartwright has served in the House since 2013 and Fitzpatrick since 2017 — they survive by getting support from voters who traditionally vote with their opponents. Like clockwork, Cartwright and Fitzpatrick win, defying the political tilt of their districts and repeated attacks linking them to the extremes of their parties. Fitzpatrick, a more moderate Republican who routinely touts his bipartisan streak and local credibility, was regularly tied to Trump and some of the most conservative members of his party in 2020, while Cartwright was linked to more liberal positions like total amnesty for undocumented immigrants and defunding the police, neither of which he supports.
With the 2022 midterms looming, the future of each party in a post-Trump White House world has yet to be solidified. Cartwright and Fitzpatrick, just like in 2020, will be targeted by a sweep of committees and outside political groups. It is how the two members deal with the political pressures of a Washington controlled by Democrats, however, that will speak volumes about each party’s future in swing districts.
“It’s very frustrating,” Fitzpatrick told CNN in an interview last month, speaking about the Republican opposition to the bipartisan infrastructure package currently being debated in the House. “What I say to my colleagues is you can criticize what we built, but you better have an alternative that’s better. … For people to be on the side of the road lobbing bombs at us when they are offering no alternative, that’s not OK.”
Fitzpatrick survived as a more moderate Republican during Trump’s years in office, including multiple attempts to unseat the congressman from the right. But with Trump still looming as the dominant force in the Republican Party, the congressman’s ability to operate as “a fiercely independent” member of Congress — something he calls himself — at a time when Republicans are demanding loyalty will speak to Trump’s broader power inside the party beyond the deepest of red districts.
Fitzpatrick said Trump’s continued hold over the party did not bother him — “He’s entitled to his opinion,” the congressman said — but warned that veering too far toward Trump will make districts like his nearly impossible for Republicans to win, admitting that very few Republicans could carry the seat he currently holds.
“It was challenging,” Fitzpatrick said of the Trump years.
Meanwhile, Cartwright, unlike many Democrats in red districts, has refused to run away from more progressive policies supported by his party, branding himself as a progressive who is in line with much of the Biden agenda. That ability to run with, and not against, Biden in northeast Pennsylvania, an area that has trended toward Republicans for years, speaks to the popularity of the President’s plans, especially with more moderate voters that helped elect him nearly a year ago.
Cartwright, somewhat mockingly, disregarded Democratic concerns that Republicans stand a chance to win back the House in 2022 because of polls showing a “generic Republican candidate” would win a House race right now and argued the best way for Democrats to win is to get things done with a Biden presidency.
“You have polls come out once in a while and people run around with shocked expressions on their faces saying the generic Republicans are ahead. And sure, I might have trouble against a generic Republican,” he said. “But the thing is, I have been running against real Republicans. … And the real Republicans that I have been running against have been easy to catch red-handed telling outright lies.”
Joe Sestak, a former Navy officer who represented eastern Pennsylvania in Congress from 2007 to 2011, said the thing that sets Fitzpatrick and Cartwright apart is the way voters trust them.
“They have that same precious thing — there is a sense from people that they are one of them,” Sestak said of both congressmen. “I don’t think everyone agrees with Matt and I don’t think everyone agrees with Brian, but they trust them.”
‘Religion of bipartisanship’
Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District isn’t like most areas represented by Republicans.
The district contains all of Bucks County, from the suburban areas along the Delaware River near Philadelphia to the farming communities around Quakertown, and it includes a tiny sliver of nearby Montgomery County. It is an affluent district — the median household income is nearly $90,000, well above the national average — and has seen a boom because of the biotech industry. And possibly the most unique difference: Trump signs are few and far between, even in the most rural reaches of the Southwestern Pennsylvania district.
“Maybe we are an anomaly,” said Patricia Poprik, the chair of the Bucks County Republican Party, who acknowledged that the blue tilt of her county in presidential elections allows Fitzpatrick to break with his party at certain times. “I am sure there may be candidates who are thinking about (challenging Fitzpatrick from the right). But in our district, Brian can win. You can’t have a real liberal or a real conservative.”
If Republicans are going to be successful in a post-Trump administration world, including in the 2022 midterms, it is areas like Bucks County that will be critical. Republicans saw suburban voters flee under Trump, turned off by his caustic rhetoric and uncaring attacks on scores of people. It hurt the party: Trump lost several suburban strongholds in 2020, while the party ceded ground in Congress in suburban districts from California to Pennsylvania.
Fitzpatrick has been successful, some of his supporters said, by ticking off both sides of the aisle, giving neither everything they want. When Democrats get mad at him for voting against impeaching Trump or the fact he voted against coronavirus relief, they are then won over by his stance on the environment, guns and LGBTQ rights. When Republicans get mad at him for not being loyal enough to Trump, they remember his vote against impeachment and for the Trump tax cuts in 2017.
“There is an appeal to the idea of bipartisanship that Fitzpatrick trades so heavily on. He calls himself our independent voice,” said Kierstyn Zolfo, a Democratic activist and volunteer for the local Indivisible chapter. “The joke of it is, I am an independent, I am a former Republican, I am a suburban woman, I should be the person he is appealing to, but that idea of bipartisanship in the way he sells it when it turns into not really representing this community or the needs of Americans.”
“It does get him reelected,” she added. “But I would say it doesn’t necessarily deliver for the people of Bucks County.”
Fitzpatrick was able to survive this upheaval, despite Biden winning Bucks County by more than 4 percentage points in 2020. Part of the reason is the power of the Fitzpatrick name. Mike Fitzpatrick, the congressman’s brother, represented the area in Congress until announcing he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2016, the year Brian Fitzpatrick won his first term. Mike Fitzpatrick died after a lengthy battle with cancer in 2020.
Democrats have not been alone in trying to oust Fitzpatrick. The congressman has easily survived multiple attempts by more conservative Republicans to oust him in the primary.
“He is not an actual Republican,” said Andy Meehan, who unsuccessfully challenged Fitzpatrick in the 2020 Republican primary by accusing him of not being close enough to Trump and his agenda. “He does his religion of bipartisanship by planting himself firmly in the middle of a road that is always turning to the left.” Meehan, however, didn’t come close to winning — the congressman won the primary with over 63% of the vote.
That resilience has led many top Democrats in the district to have a healthy respect for Fitzpatrick.
“I have always been mystified that you could vote for a president of one party and then a congressperson of a different party, but voters do that all the time,” said Joe Foster, chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Party. “They are just tough to beat. That is what it is — certain people have the ability to hang in there, so there is a level of respect.”
Fitzpatrick looks at this support, even among Democrats, as a lesson for his national party.
“View diversity of thought as a strength, not a weakness to be criticized,” he told CNN when asked what his party should learn from his district. “I think people in general, but people particularly in our community here, respect someone who thinks for themselves that doesn’t get sucked into the whole Hatfield vs. McCoy partisanship. People are just very tired of that.”
‘Why does anybody split a ticket?’
For Cartwright to keep winning, he needs supporters like Ed Esposito, the owner of Esposito Shoes, his family business in Exeter, Pennsylvania. Esposito, like many of his friends and neighbors, voted for Trump in 2016, wooed by the idea that he understood the struggles of a town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. But Esposito also voted for Cartwright, a congressman who vociferously opposed the Republican President.
“On a national level, he is the second time in my life I have voted for a Democrat. The first time was Bill Clinton. The second time was Matt Cartwright,” said Esposito, adding that he made the decision after Cartwright’s office helped him with a Medicare claim dispute.
“I am not a million-dollar donor and he helped me,” the shoe store owner said. “He didn’t ask for party affiliation, never asked for a donation, nothing.”
Esposito represents the voter that Cartwright has survived on for years — someone who disagrees with him politically but has been won over by either his local ties, his constituent work or his relatability. Cartwright, unlike some other Democrats in Trump districts, has stood by his progressive beliefs, running more on his passion for his northeast Pennsylvania district and his local bona fides than a moderate that could appeal to Trump voters.
“Why does anybody split a ticket? Because what they’re doing is they’re not just voting on ideology, they’re voting the candidate. In many cases, these are people I know,” Cartwright said of Trump-Cartwright voters in an interview with CNN in August. “People are going on their gut about this guy standing in front of me.”
Where Fitzpatrick’s district is affluent and growing, Cartwright’s district is far more rural and impoverished, with a median income around $56,000, lower than the national average. Anthracite coal fields had been king in the district, but as demand fell, jobs left, and the political upheaval was swift — one time union households that had long voted for Democrats abandoned the party for the culture wars and more lax environmental policies of Republicans.
Biden, who has turned Scranton into a political talisman, was born in Cartwright’s district and the Democratic congressman has fashioned himself as a Biden Democrat in recent years: He endorsed the former vice president right after he got into the 2020 presidential race, despite numerous other Democrats vying to take on Trump.
Cartwright’s ability to keep winning on Biden’s message could bode well for the party. And it’s something the congressman himself attributes, in part, to Biden.
“Right or wrong… when the Democrat at the top of the ticket was Hillary Clinton, Trump won by 10% in my district and when the Democrat at the top of the ticket was Joe Biden, Trump won by 4.5%,” Cartwright said, adding a not-so-humble brag that he “outperformed joe Biden by 8.1%.”
Cartwright, however, has been a top target for Republicans for years — the party eager to seize on the rightward lean of the district to gain another seat in House. And the congressman already has a Republican opponent for the midterms: Teddy Daniels, a far-right congressional hopeful who said he was close to the US Capitol during the January 6 insurrection and announced his campaign with a video that puts him fully in line with Trump’s messaging.
“I am here,” he wrote in a tweet along with the video from the Capitol on January 6. “God bless our patriots.”
People who have worked with Cartwright in the Scranton area, however, are skeptical that someone like Daniels can win, especially without Trump on the ballot to boost turnout among the former President’s base.
“I can see where someone could say I am fed up with politicians and the system, so I am voting for Trump, but I am also voting for Cartwright because I see him fighting for us,” said Dwayne Heisler, a Democratic operative from nearby Columbia County who works as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union. “He just has a very deep history with the community and with this region that his competitors just can’t match…they are seen as outsiders. People know Cartwright as the local guy.”
For Cartwright, even if he disagrees with Fitzpatrick on a host of issues, he does seem some similarities — something he believes other Democrats could learn from.
“The similarity is that we are both workers,” Cartwright said about his Republican colleague. “You want to establish your own brand — I think I have and I think he has. You have to get out and be with people and show them what you are made of. I think he understands that.”
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