Pennsylvania's newly drawn 1st Congressional District, just north of Philadelphia, is nearly evenly split between Democratic and Republican voters. It's the kind of place where a moderate congressman like Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick has, in the past, appealed to centrist voters of both parties.
But Fitzpatrick's vote in favor of the President Donald Trump's tax cut last winter didn't sit well with Jerry Middlemiss, a moderate Democrat from Yardley, the kind of voter he'll need to win over to eke out a win this November.
"I'm not pleased about that," said the semi-retired school counselor.
Fitzpatrick, a freshman member of the House, is well-liked enough in this district, whose partisan balance was spared despite a major redistricting that tilted other districts nearby and in the rest of Pennsylvania to the left. But he faces what many Republican incumbents across the country must deal with this year: independent voters and die-hard Democrats together eager for Congress to act as a check against the Trump administration.
This article, part 1 in a series, examines one of the key battleground races for control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Carried by grassroots momentum, Democrats must take 23 seats from Republicans to win the balance of power. They are contending with Republicans' experience and organization, and an outspoken but polarizing president.
Middlemiss doesn't yet know much about Scott Wallace, the Democrat challenging Fitzpatrick, but he believes America should push the reset button on Congress.
"If you are opposed to the current administration and the way the government has been run, you may want to make a change," Middlemiss said. "The more Democrats you can get in to balance out what's going on, I would do that."
Voters' desire for change in Washington could be enough to swing the district for Wallace, 66, a first-time candidate but longtime funder of progressive policies and organizations.
In Wallace, the Democrats have a wealthy, self-funded grandson of a former vice president to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Wallace has worked as a lawyer and member of his family's powerful nonprofit, the Wallace Global Fund, whose mission is "to promote an informed and engaged citizenry, to fight injustice and to protect" the environment.
The family connection could also doom his chances in November, if Fitzpatrick is able to persuade voters that Wallace is too liberal for the centrist district.
The Global Fund, which has more than $110 million and funds dozens of liberal groups each year, has been the focus of Republican television ads for weeks already.
One ad, paid for by the political action arm of the Republican National Congressional Committee, described Wallace as pro-population control and eager to tax families of five or more people, based on funding the Wallace charity handed out before the candidate became a board member. Another ad claims Wallace is anti-police because his charity gave to liberal news organization Democracy Now!, which has occasionally reported on convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal.
The claims in both ads have been rated as either "false" or "misleading" by media fact checkers. Still, they continue to air in the Philadelphia media market. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick has slammed Wallace as too rich to represent the district's interests.
"My opponent is the most far-left extremist candidate that's ever run for office in this district," Fitzpatrick said in an interview with NBC10 Philadelphia. "Having been in Congress for a year and a half, I can tell you we have too many partisan ideologues and too many multimillionaires. Scott Wallace is both."
Wallace disputes that his politics are anything beyond progressive and said he's surprised Fitzpatrick went down the path of "mudslinging."
He's since begun running ads as well, promising to bring change to Washington, D.C., and reverse the national debt accrued by the Republican tax cuts.
"Any candidate expects their life's work to be put under a microscope, and yes, our foundation has been about three progressive issues: climate change, democracy and women's empowerment," Wallace said in an interview. "What I didn't expect and what has astonished me is that people would take our record, and distort it, and turn it into lies and in such bizarre ways."
Fitzpatrick, for his part, survived criticism two years ago when Democrats accused the former FBI agent of taking advantage of his family name by running for the congressional seat. His older brother, Mike, was the outgoing congressman representing the region; Brian won the election by 9 points.
Fitzpatrick cites his lifelong connection to the district and touts his freshman legislative record as proof that he represents the type of moderate approach to government that his constituents want.
Redistricting in Pennsylvania significantly changed the political landscape for many incumbents when the state Supreme Court remapped the state's 18 congressional districts this year, but Fitzpatrick's constituency remained nearly the same. His district changed in name, from the 8th District to the 1st, but only a small portion of its boundary shifted: a slice of Montgomery County to the west of Bucks County swapped for another slice.
While the remapping made Democrats far more competitive in some areas, especially in the Philadelphia suburbs, Fitzpatrick's district remained very diverse in its makeup of Republicans and Democrats, affluent and blue-collar workers, suburban homes and small farms.
"It's the most amazing place on the planet," Fitzpatrick said. "We're a microcosm of America."
Fitzpatrick points to centrist legislation he helped usher into law, including the Interdict Act, which gives border agents stronger technology to stop opioids from crossing the border, and the Children of Fallen Heroes Act, which provides educational support for kids of fallen first responders.
But he has also voted in line with Republicans on the biggest conservative agenda items of the last two years, Wallace argues, including the Trump tax cuts. In June, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that registered voters were less likely to support a candidate who backed the bill.
Both candidates had near identical campaign cash on hand as of the last required federal filings June 30: $1.7 million for Wallace and $1.65 million for Fitzpatrick. But Wallace had spent some $3.6 million compared to $800,000 for Fitzpatrick in the three months before. (The next Federal Election Commission reports won't be published for two weeks.)
Outside groups have tilted the other way, pouring more than $2 million to oppose Wallace and $430,000 to support Fitzpatrick, at least an order of magnitude greater than the outside support Wallace has gotten, according to ProPublica's election data tracker.
The only independent public poll for the race, conducted in May and released June 4 by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, found what most people expected — a negligible one-point spread between Fitzpatrick and Wallace.
Charlie Gerow, a Republican political consultant well-versed in Pennsylvania politics, told NBC10 in August that confidence among Republican strategists remained high for Fitzpatrick to hold onto the seat. But he said the party would likely see a net loss of seats overall in the state.
In a sign of angst for many Republicans, Gerow said that despite optimism for Fitzpatrick's chances, the race was proving "more of a tussle than he would like."
The race has become a virtual dead heat as it heads into the home stretch, according to the Cook Political Report, which moved the district from "Lean Republican" to "Toss-Up" in late September.
In changing the Fitzpatrick-Wallace showdown to that "who knows" designation, the political website's House editor, David Wasserman, wrote: "Both parties are seeing Republicans' numbers continuing to erode in professional suburbs, and some in the GOP fear they still haven't hit rock bottom."
To Wallace, the district is a must-win if Democrats hope to win the House, and that's why he decided to leave philanthropic life and run to win it.
"There's a reason you're seeing vast amounts of money from super PACs outside [supporting Fitzpatrick]. They know what we know. Whoever wins this district wins the House," he said.