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