Bucks House race could be burbs' best

Mike Fitzpatrick
Mike Fitzpatrick
Posted: August 29, 2012

LIKE MANY Bucks County voters, Pat Keppler considers herself an independent. She hasn't decided whom she'll choose in the race between U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick and Democratic challenger Kathy Boockvar.

Although she favors Republicans more often, Keppler was irked by Fitzpatrick's vote to remove funding for Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion services. Congress, she said, should be focused on bigger issues.

"I don't think we should be talking about that now. That bothered me," said Keppler, a retiree. "If [Boockvar] pushes on that, she could get my vote."

Attentive, amenable voters like Keppler are exactly whom Boockvar will have to win over if she is to unseat Fitzpatrick in what is shaping up to be the area's most competitive and expensive congressional race.

Wedged between the blue sea of the city and the red ranges of rural Pennsylvania, Bucks County and the other Philadelphia suburbs are home to thousands of persuadable voters. After three wave elections that saw one party sweep through these swing districts, the suburbs are once again the state's most important political ground.

And the money is pouring in.

Both parties' congressional-campaign funds have reserved millions of dollars of TV airtime in the Philadelphia market to barrage suburban voters after Labor Day. And outside groups on both sides are expected to make major plays as well.

Fitzpatrick, who sits on a powerful committee overseeing the banking industry, had raised a prodigious $1.9 million as of last month, according to the Federal Election Commission. And although Boockvar trails badly in the cash race, her $673,000 is more than some incumbents raise in an entire cycle.

Boockvar, 43, a Doylestown lawyer, has received support from national women's groups and has made her opponent's record on gender issues a central theme of her campaign.

Fitzpatrick, 49, who as a Catholic has been a staunch opponent of abortion, has been "a problem on almost every vote and bill that comes forth relating to women," she said. "This is a district of mothers like me that want to be able to run our own businesses effectively, but we also don't want the government in our doctor's office."

Boockvar highlighted the Planned Parenthood vote and his support for a measure that would limit the types of cases in which rape victims can get public assistance for abortions.

Fitzpatrick, however, said social issues will not be as important in this election as fiscal policy.

"Every issue is important, but the issue voters are most concerned about in 2012 is strengthening the economy, getting people back to work and getting our fiscal house in order," he said in an interview.

He touted his vote for the House budget proposal crafted by GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman. That bill, which has become a favorite target for Democratic challengers, would transform Medicare into a voucher program and make drastic spending cuts to many federal programs.

"I'm the only candidate in the race who has voted to save Medicare for our seniors and all voters 55 and over," Fitzpatrick said.

Republican groups have worked to paint Boockvar as a far-left candidate because of her past associations with liberal legal groups like the American Lawyers Guild and the Advancement Project, on whose board entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte sits.

Nathaniel Sillin, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement that the Democrat is a "liberal activist" who is "vastly out of step with this moderate district."

Boockvar countered that she is a "public-interest lawyer" and that her work for those advocacy groups and her private practice helped needy families.

She launched her first TV ad last week - a $38,000 cable buy - kicking off what is sure to be a flood of airtime in the Philadelphia market aimed at congressional races in the suburbs.

National parties are also eyeing the rematch between Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach and Dr. Manan Trivedi, a Berks County Democrat and Iraq War veteran.

Riding the historic GOP wave, Gerlach, 57, defeated Trivedi, 38, by a wide margin in 2010. Redistricting was kind to the 10-year incumbent, giving him a more conservative district that snakes through four counties from West Chester to Lebanon.

But Trivedi said that he sees an opportunity in the new configuration: About half the voters have never seen Gerlach on the ballot, diminishing the challenger's name-recognition problem.

If he can convince them that Gerlach, known as a moderate, has followed his party to the right in recent years, he has a shot to win enough swing voters to pull off the upset, Trivedi said.

"He's gone to the extreme," he said, citing Gerlach's party-line votes during the debt-ceiling negotiations and budget proposals. "He's become one of these tea-party guys that's out of touch."

With about $530,000 in available cash, Trivedi was only $320,000 behind Gerlach in July, one of the state's smallest deficits for a competitive challenger, according to FEC reports.

But Gerlach, a scrappy and effective campaigner, has fended off credible challenges in almost every election since he took office. He's already on the offensive.

"Whether it's cap-and-trade, his support of failed alternative energy, the takeover of health care, [Trivedi] is promoting the problem," Gerlach spokesman Vince Galko said of the challenger.

Republican Rep. Pat Meehan has also drawn a credible threat from Radnor resident George Badey, a high-powered lawyer known locally for helping to lead the Save the Mummers group.

But some observers have written off the race because Badey has performed poorly in fundraising and is not expected to get as much support from the national party as Boockvar and Trivedi.

Redistricting turned the compact Main Line seat into a bizarrely shaped GOP-friendly district covering slices of Montgomery, Delaware, Chester, Berks and Lancaster counties.

The only suburban incumbent considered totally safe is also the lone Democrat: Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who represents a heavily Democratic seat in Montgomery County and Northeast Philadelphia.


Contact Sean Collins Walsh at 215-285-5281 or walshse@phillynews.com .

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