The Murphys Shake the GOP

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 3, 2006

QUAKERTOWN, Pa. -- The crowd at the Spinnerstown Hotel was gathered for a beer tasting, a regular event at an establishment that boasts a 34-page beer guide. Yet when a politician walked in Wednesday night seeking votes, he was met not as a boring crasher spoiling a good time but with smiles and even some cheers.

This year, politics matters.

Patrick Murphy, a 33-year-old Democrat, Iraq war veteran and proud "son of a cop and legal secretary," is trying to take the congressional seat held by Republican Michael Fitzpatrick. Murphy goes table to table, closing several sales. He has experience bringing people around: His wife, Jennifer, a fellow lawyer, was once a Young Republican.

Murphy gives everyone he meets a small blue campaign card highlighting the issues he is counting on. Three are predictable: support for stem cell research, for allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prices from drug companies and for middle-class tax cuts. But at the top of the list are these bold words: "Bring our troops home from Iraq through a phased redeployment."

Later, during a rally at the West End fire station here, Murphy wins a sustained round of applause when he says it's time to get out of Iraq.

The surest sign that Tuesday could be unpleasant for Republicans is the extent to which voters are simultaneously engaged and frustrated, anxious for change and worried about Iraq.

Republicans know this, and they're trying to win by discrediting the alternatives. To watch television in these parts northwest of Philadelphia is to witness the video equivalent of machine guns unloading in the final spasms of a battle.

Broadcasting one ad after another after another, the National Republican Congressional Committee is trying to tar and feather two Democrats named Murphy. Next door to Patrick Murphy's district, Lois Murphy is looking to unseat Republican incumbent Jim Gerlach. With two other Pennsylvania Republicans -- Reps. Curt Weldon and Don Sherwood -- facing defeat, the GOP is petrified that the Murphys could compound Republican losses.

But the seriousness out here may make this a bad year for junky attack ads. John Dale, the third-generation proprietor of the Spinnerstown Hotel and a registered Republican, says he can't bring himself to vote for Fitzpatrick because of the nature of the Republican campaign. "It's all negative," he said. "Negative, negative, negative."

In this once staunchly Republican area in Bucks County, you meet many frustrated Republicans and learn why the GOP is steadily losing ground in the Philadelphia region. In just one evening, I ran into Matthew Alderfer, a Republican teacher who voted for George Bush in 2000 but can't support his party because of Iraq; Kenneth Ahl, a lawyer who changed parties because of Republican stands on budget deficits and social issues; and Tom Peterson, a teacher who switched his registration to Democratic this year.

There are data behind the anecdotes: The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Thursday that Democrats have posted modest but clear registration gains since May in all of the four big nominally Republican counties outside of Philadelphia: Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery.

Lois Murphy, running again after narrowly losing to Gerlach two years ago, provides as close to a controlled experiment as politics offers. Here's her description of the difference between 2004 and 2006:

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