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This House Race Could Be a Bellwether For The Midterms

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Here in the heart of the American suburb, the battle for the ultimate swing district is underway. The contest between incumbent Republican freshman Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and Democratic millionaire donor and philanthropist Scott Wallace for a House seat promises to be the most expensive race in the country. And the most watched. For Wallace, the test is whether he can convince voters that he is one of them. Despite a newly gerrymandered map that favors the Democrats and a much-ballyhooed blue wave of anti-Trump voters expected at the polls, he is struggling to connect with people in the district.

The grandson of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second vice president, Henry Wallace, the younger Wallace has long maintained a home in the district but spent the past few decades living in Washington, D.C., or South Africa as the co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund, a social justice organization.

"Bucks County is very much a place where people vote on local issues and people want to hear their issues reflected in the candidate's talking points," said Amy Strouse, a Democrat and chairperson for the Middletown township board of supervisors. "I think that's what Scott's going to need to turn his attention to -- making the race not a national campaign."

Strouse is convinced Wallace will make that argument.

But two other women, Dori Dugan and Jacqui Redner, both staunch suburban Democrats who voted for Hillary Clinton and abhor President Donald Trump, are supporting the Republican candidate. They say Fitzpatrick is separate from both Trump and the label "Republican."

"I grew up a fire-in-the belly liberal," says Dugan, a drug and alcohol prevention specialist. "I voted Barack Obama over John McCain, Obama again over Mitt Romney and in 2016 I voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump." She even voted against Fitzpatrick during his first race in 2016. But this November's midterm election is different.

When the Republican addressed the community after a swastika was painted at a local high school football field, the 56-year-old mother of two college-aged children took notice: "At first I rolled my eyes when he walked up to the microphone, because my expectations weren't very high. But when he explained without any script why he thought what happened was so wrong, he caught my attention. He didn't sound like a politician, he sounded like someone who I was sitting across in a Starbucks who is just as concerned about the vandalism as I am. I thought he's got something going on here, so I started to look into some of his work."

Redner is the president of the Pennsbury school board, one of the largest districts in Pennsylvania, the mother of five boys and another staunch Democrat who is leaving her party, albeit briefly, to support Fitzpatrick over Wallace.

She said: "No, I didn't vote for Trump. Ugh, don't like him, but Brian? He's his own man, and he is this district. It's not hard for me to separate him from Trump or from the Republican Party. I want who is the best advocate for our community, who knows us and has proven he will fight for us."

Redner has seen firsthand how mental health issues and the opioid crisis can impact a tight-knit family. She painfully recalls the loss of two of her sons -- one to suicide in 2015, when the stress of his job as a first responder took the ultimate toll, and the other just ten months ago, when he succumbed to his opioid addiction.

She said: "What's killing our future here is the mental health and the opioid problem. Fitzpatrick understands that and focuses on that. He doesn't give lip service."

Her husband, a heavy-equipment operating engineer and member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542, and her three surviving sons are also all Democrats. "They also all voted for Fitzpatrick in 2016, the only Republican they ever voted for then and will again in November," she said.

In short, both women see Fitzpatrick as the advocate who will put partisan politics aside to address local issues for them here and in Washington.

Dave Wasserman, an analyst with The Cook Political Report, said their sentiments are partly why his team has moved this Pennsylvania seat from the "Toss-Up" column to "Lean Republican."

"This is the case where local politics matter and Bucks County is one of those classic places that has a strong local identity. Bucks rewards candidates with strong community ties," said Wasserman. "Here is an example of the Democrats having a candidate that money and maps can't solve."

Anything can happen in the swing politics of Levittown, where innovative subdivisions were built during the post-World War II boom to house returning soldiers and their sweethearts. The voters here reflect an upwardly mobile blue-collar work ethic that has been passed down from grandparents and parents -- all coexisting in a county evenly split between Democrat and Republican registered voters.

Democrat Clinton won Bucks by less than 1 percentage point in 2016, while Fitzpatrick won it by 9 percentage points over his Democratic rival Steve Santarsiero.

But the winds of change blow often and hard.

Democrats still have an advantage, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in April, but the gap between Democratic and Republican candidates for Congress has narrowed since January. A blue wave might be coming, or it could just as easily peeter out come November, especially in a place like Bucks County.

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