September 6th, 2010
03:50 PM ET
12 years ago

Suburban Philadelphia grudge match a test of GOP wave

Bristol, Pennsylvania (CNN) – 1518 votes. That's all that Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy won his suburban Philadelphia seat by the last time he faced Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, and that was back in 2006, when anti-war sentiment was sweeping Democrats into office, and Murphy was running as a disillusioned Iraq war veteran.

Now, Murphy is the incumbent Democrat running in a decidedly different atmosphere. The ailing economy is driving voters, and he is part of the party in power they're mad at.

"Well it's a tough environment. People are hurting out there," Murphy told us in his campaign headquarters, "people are looking for work, the Bush administration and Mike Fitzpatrick ran it into a ditch and we're trying to grow jobs."

But it's hard to deny things have gotten worse for people in his swing district in Bucks County. Over the last year alone, unemployment has jumped from 7.4 percent to 8.2 percent.

So as Murphy tries to tie current problems to past GOP policies, his opponent is seizing on voter frustration with Democrats who control Washington now.

"Congressman Murphy has not been independent he has been a rubber stamp for the bad national policies of Nancy Pelosi," Fitzpatrick told us.

Talking to voters in this moderate area, we found evidence that kind of argument resonates.

George Repitsky says business is down 75% in his flooring company in idyllic and affluent Newtown, and he's had to lay off a large part of his staff, even his own son.

He's a Republican who voted for President Obama, and says he now regrets it.

"We needed change he sounded good. All the Democrats did. They don't sound good anymore because they're not doing the job they promised they would do," said Repitsky.

Disappointed that the president "schmoozed" him by talking about change, Repitsky said he plans to vote against the incumbent Democratic congressman to protest.

"We need to shake up the government again and we need to get the Democrats and the Republicans on a level playing ground," he said.

Murphy knows George Repitsky is not alone in his district.

"People are pissed off at Washington, and you know what so am I," said the Congressman.

But people think you are Washington, we told him, after conversations with voters.

"I would say I am still here every day and this is where I'm raising my family this is where I work and I think they appreciate that, they appreciate my efforts and I'm redoubling my efforts to do what we can to put our economy back on the right track," said Murphy.

Unlike other vulnerable Democratic congressman in this state who voted against prominent Obama initiatives, Murphy supported most of the president's big agenda items, from health care reform to the near $800 billion economic stimulus plan.

Murphy defends those votes, but also takes pains to talk about instances when he broke with his party, like supporting the Arizona immigration law and even voting to choke funds for the administrations lawsuit against the measure.

"If the Democrats are right, I'll vote with the Democrats. If they're wrong like they were in Arizona, on the Arizona law, I'll vote against them. That's as simple as it can be," said Murphy.

Fitzpatrick, who took us to see two small business owners who are suffering and support him, made clear that he understands many voters in his moderate district are still angry at Republicans too.

The former one term GOP congressman served as President Bush's popularity plummeted. He admitted that looking back, "we didn't cut deep enough."

"We didn't work hard enough to reduce that deficit. Those were better economic times than we're having now. I've learned from those experiences so we need to do a better job of getting to a balanced federal budget quicker," conceded Fitzpatrick.

Murphy is poised to pounce on Fitzpatrick on the campaign trail and on the expensive Philadelphia airwaves, about some of the GOP candidate's votes during his two years in Washington – especially Fitzpatrick's vote for CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The Democratic Congressman says his GOP rival's support for free trade when he was in Congress contributed to manufacturing plants like Jones of New York closing in the district.

"He voted and was the passing vote there and the next year that plant shut down and all those families are out of work, now I'm trying to rebuild this community and I helped bring back 3000 jobs," said Murphy.

A bright spot for Murphy is that in 2008, Democrats, with the help of President Obama's campaign, boosted their voter registration in his district. In fact, the first time Murphy and Fitzpatrick faced off, Republicans had an advantage of 27,000 registered voters. Now, Democrats have a 14,000 advantage.

But the question is whether that will be enough to help this year. Local Democratic leaders say enthusiasm among their base is down here just like it is elsewhere in the country.

"They need a boost," Democratic activist Larry Otter said wryly.

College student Jamie Bartholomay is a prime example of one demographic that Democrats may be lacking in November.

When we talked to her outside of the Starbucks in Newtown, she said she was excited to vote for President Obama, but doesn't plan to vote in this year's midterm elections.

"I don't think I've talked to anyone this year who is interested in the congressional election," she said.

Back at his campaign headquarters, Murphy still peppers his conversations with reminders of his service in Iraq, and the men he served with who were killed.

"What the military taught me is to lead by example. I was frustrated. It's what got me into politics," he says.

Strategists for both campaigns say internal polls show Murphy and Fitzpatrick's rematch now neck and neck. The climate for Democrats has gotten so bad this summer, some local Democrats who were not concerned for Murphy before, now are.

One thing both parties agree on is that this race could be a leading indicator of whether there really will be a big Republican wave on election day.

-CNN's Evan Glass contributed to this report

Filed under: 2010 • Pennsylvania
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. jim

    The fact is the dems have been in control of the Congress and the presidency for the last two years and the republicans have been powerless to stop anything they've wanted to do.To blame the republicans for the economy now is just plan silly.

    September 6, 2010 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  2. Peter s

    Can anyone of sound mind vote Republican?

    September 6, 2010 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  3. LacrosseMom(the real one)

    @ JIM: Correction............ 20.............months!

    Democrats took a majority in Congress in 2008

    President Obama was sworn on Jan. 20th, 2009.

    Its silly to blame the GOP for the ECONOMY?????????? WHAT?


    September 6, 2010 04:30 pm at 4:30 pm |
  4. Muttdog

    Yes the dems have been in control but the republicans were in total control for ten years. Part of the Clinton and mostly all of the bush. Yet they borrowed trillions from communist to spend on foreign wars and ramp up profits for the oil industry while the nation went into decay. I and many other Americans do not work hard and pay taxes to destroy and rebuild Iraqi infrastructure

    September 6, 2010 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  5. kd

    Are you kidding me? The Republicans have blocked EVERYTHING of importance. They are responsible for getting this country in the mess it is in and just two years later the idiot citizenry is ready to believe their blatant lies and put them back in power. It's absolutely amazing.

    Republicans are scum – lying, desperate, ugly, rotten scum. Anybody who votes for a Republican is either a racist, stupid, mean, greedy or all of those things put together.

    September 6, 2010 04:39 pm at 4:39 pm |
  6. stela-fl

    what silly is going back to the same with the Party of NO..
    and the sad thing we are going to let them get away with it!

    September 6, 2010 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  7. Renea

    Its the Republicans fault as well thats why we are here even if J. mccain was President the economy would still be like it is now or worse. So people can say all they want its just the Dems fault they are lying and they know it.

    September 6, 2010 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  8. bcrunner

    Well Jim, tell us who drove the economy into the ditch and what have the Republicans done to make things better. Tell us what ideas they have put on the table...

    September 6, 2010 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  9. leon pa

    Don"t worry Mr murhy Pa is not going to let the crazy take you job.

    September 6, 2010 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  10. Moe NY

    Most Americans have your back President Obama....we know what is going on, and do not agree with the slander and lies.....and we know exactly where these lies are coming from, and exactly who the special interest groups are in this country. Thank you for all your have done/tried to do for us,....I, personally, appreciate your efforts and realize it has been an uphill battle for you....thank you.

    September 6, 2010 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |