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In Pa. race, working to turn anger in his favor

By Shailagh Murray
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 10:37 PM

QUAKERTOWN, PA. - Mike Fitzpatrick knows the price of political anger. He's paid it.

The Republican lawmaker lost his House seat in 2006 after a single term - like others in his party, a casualty of frustration over the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, a GOP Congress tainted by scandal and an unpopular war.

But four years later, Fitzpatrick is trying to win back his old seat. "People will vote this year against the party in power and against the incumbent out of disappointment," he said recently at a local pizzeria. "You can see it. It's palpable, given the economy."

No question, the economy has Democrats back on their heels. But some voters here say the Democratic lawmakers, emboldened after their party's major win in 2006 and Barack Obama's election two years later, lost sight of their district's priorities.

Here in the heart of the East Coast industrial belt, working- and middle-class residents say they're eager for Washington to create jobs. The health-care overhaul and the climate change bill - measures that received minimal bipartisan support but were backed by Fitzpatrick's successor, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D) - are a harder sell for some.

By all accounts, Republicans are poised for major gains next month. How the party will govern if it wins - and whether voters feel that GOP lawmakers are more connected to their movement than to their districts - may determine whether whipsaw power swaps become the new normal in an increasingly paralyzed Washington.

In his one term in the House, Fitzpatrick seemed to match his constituents' moderate sensibilities. He championed federal restrictions on school computers to prevent minors from gaining access to Internet chat rooms and social-networking Web sites. He supported increased funding for mass transit. The National Journal ranked Fitzpatrick No. 24 on its "most liberal" list in 2005.

But like many Republican candidates in 2010, Fitzpatrick has moved to the right, reaching out to tea party groups and adopting the slogan "Take back our country." His top priorities this year are tax cuts, loosening business regulations, and limiting "the size and scope of government."

Murphy has needled Fitzpatrick for appearing to reposition himself, asking him "to clarify which candidate he should expect to show up at the debates: Former Congressman Mike 'Top 25 Most Liberal Republicans' Fitzpatrick or the new Mike 'Tea-Party' Fitzpatrick?"

Many of Fitzpatrick's supporters are like the candidate - middle-class suburbanites alarmed by the breakneck pace and expansive reach of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. They are sympathetic to the tea party movement's crusade to shrink government, and they accuse Washington of fostering a culture of federal handouts - whether for the auto industry, the long-term unemployed, or struggling homeowners who face foreclosure.

"You can't keep giving entitlements to people and expect them to have the initiative to work," said Cris Courdoff, a local GOP activist, who joined Fitzpatrick for a slice of pizza. "Why should I put myself out there if they're getting things for free? I'm frustrated with that. People want government out of their households."

Other Quakertown voters are disillusioned independents who are struggling financially and feel abandoned by Murphy, the son of a Philadelphia police officer and the first Iraqi War veteran elected to Congress.

After lunch, at the Quakertown Farmer's Market, 41-year-old cancer survivor Deborah Kramer told Fitzpatrick about her battle to keep her Medicaid coverage, which lapses whenever her pay as a toy-store clerk fluctuates by a few dollars. The local waiting list for federal housing assistance is full, forcing her and her family to live with an elderly relative.

One of Kramer's challenges is getting to work on time. She shares a car with her husband, but he works at a gas station that is located miles away, and their schedules don't match up.

Improving mass transit in his district was a priority for Fitzpatrick when he was campaigning in 2006. Today he makes no promises.

"We're teetering," Kramer told Fitzpatrick. "We want to be off public assistance entirely, but we can't afford the costs."

"I'll work hard for you," he said.

As Fitzpatrick walked away, Kramer sounded unconvinced. "I used to look at it as Republicans are for themselves and Democrats are for us," she said. "But nowadays it doesn't seem that way. It seems like they're battling each other to see who can get the most."

At a nearby butcher counter, Jeffrey Hocker buttonholed Fitzpatrick. The hospital where he works a maintenance job has stopped paying overtime, reducing his annual income by about $3,000.

Maxed out on his two credit cards, Hocker withdrew money from his retirement account to buy a winter's worth of heating oil.

As a member of the House in 2006, Fitzpatrick voted to provide $1 billion in emergency energy aid for low-income households, but he doesn't mention that to Hocker or pledge to support similar aid in the future.

"Thank God you came along to hear about this," Hocker told Fitzpatrick. "I'm talking to you thinking, 'This man wants to listen to what I have to say.' "

For both parties, Pennsylvania's 8th District offers a cautionary tale. First Fitzpatrick and now Murphy have run into trouble for allowing their political identities to grow indistinct from their national parties, creating a gulf with constituents. If Fitzpatrick wins and can't find a way to represent the interests of voters like Kramer and Hocker, along with those of voters like Courduff, he could repeat the cycle.

"He's articulating the popular themes and Murphy can't go anywhere," said G. Terry Madonna, director of polling at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn. "But people aren't voting for Republicans this year. They're voting against the Democrats and their agenda."

Murphy is focused on reminding constituents that they voted Fitzpatrick and his party out of office in 2006 for a reason. "Folks are understandably frustrated, but former congressman Fitzpatrick must think we have amnesia," the Democrat said. "He rubber-stamped the failed Bush economic policies that drove our economy into ditch."

Recent polling in the 8th District has shown the race to be a tight one. A Franklin & Marshall survey released in late September gave Fitzpatrick a 49 percent to 35 percent edge, although Murphy's campaign strongly disputed the result.

One word not heard much on the 2010 campaign trail is "bipartisan." Assuming the next Congress is as narrowly split as polls suggest it will be, no bill of any consequence will pass Congress without bipartisan support. The only path to legislative success will cut through the political middle.

Fitzpatrick does point to one difference between 2006 and 2010: The two parties agree broadly agree on the problems the country faces. Where they diverge is on solutions.

"I believe people want progress, and progress is more people working, and less government spending and a lower national debt," Fitzpatrick said. "That's clearly the direction that both parties say we're going to take you. In this race, Murphy says we need to get people back to work, and I'm saying the same thing."

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