BRISTOL, Pa. — Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick had been expected to face a tough re-election fight.
Then he sided with GOP leadership and a tea party insisting that a federal spending plan to keep the government open must delay or defund President Barack Obama's health care law. Now, with the partial government shutdown stretching into its second week, Fitzpatrick's bid for a second term may be growing even more challenging.
Voters in his suburban Philadelphia district talk of a widening sense of disappointment with their two-term congressman, while Democrats across Pennsylvania and other states claim new momentum in their quest to take back the House majority next fall
"It would have been nice for him to make a decision that wasn't based on party," says Daryl Curtis, who for two decades has run a barber shop along Bristol's sleepy main drag.
For the GOP, the stakes in places like Bristol are high. The fight for control of the House likely will be won and lost in suburban swing districts where most voters favor political moderation and independence over party ideology. Republican success in hanging onto these districts will depend, in part, on how well they explain the shutdown to weary voters — and how long it lasts.
That's putting new pressure on Republican moderates who represent such districts, Fitzpatrick included.
After weeks of trying to balance the wishes of his moderate district and House conservatives, he sided with most congressional Republicans in refusing to approve a measure that would have kept the government operating because it also would have continued to pay for the health care law. Democrats, who control the White House and the Senate, refused to delay or destroy the landmark health care law. The impasse resulted in the government shutdown.
One of Fitzpatrick's Democratic opponents, former Army Ranger Kevin Strouse, has used the shutdown to try to paint the congressman as too conservative for the district.
"The House of Representatives has caved to the tea party. And that includes Congressman Fitzpatrick," Strouse told a handful of reporters at a mall park in downtown Bristol last week.
With the shutdown in its 10th day, Fitzpatrick — like many of his GOP colleagues across the country — now says he would support a spending bill regardless of whether it funds the health care law. And like Republicans in swing-voting districts elsewhere, he's downplaying his initial votes that led to the shutdown, offering a distinctly moderate tone when asked about the continuing crisis.
"I was sent to Washington to solve problems and make government work, not shut it down," Fitzpatrick said. "It's us in the radical middle who are finding solutions to get the government running. That means even on the tough issues it's important to work with members of both parties."
Fitzpatrick's Bucks County district, near New Jersey, has a history of close congressional races, and its fickle suburban voters are known to look poorly on Washington dysfunction. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's standing also is shaky after a series of missteps, raising concerns among some Republicans that he could be a drag on the ticket next fall. And now there's uncertainty over shutdown fallout.
The concerns are rippling through other suburban districts. In Virginia, Republican Rep. Frank Wolf is calling for the shutdown to end, although he supported the measure that helped cause it.
"This is bad for America. Enough is enough. It's time to be leaders. It's time to govern. Open up the government," Wolf said on the House floor recently.
In a subsequent phone interview, Wolf said he supports the goal of stopping the president's health care law but opposes the tactics House Republicans are using: "I don't want to see a Democratic House in 2014."
House Democrats are working to ensure Republicans pay a price. They have launched rounds of recorded calls criticizing Fitzpatrick and more than 60 other House Republicans in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida and Iowa. The calls argue that House Republicans ultimately bear the responsibility for the shutdown.
Recent polls suggest a majority of voters agree. An AP-GfK poll out this week found that 62 percent think Republicans in Congress bear a lot of responsibility, while 49 percent blamed Obama.
About 1 in 6 Americans surveyed said they or someone in their household has been impacted by the shutdown, citing furloughs, canceled honeymoons, an inability to get flu shots for poor medical patients, or interrupted audits.
The chairman of House Democrats' campaign committee, New York Rep. Steve Israel, argues that the shutdown gives his party a significant political advantage heading into next fall's midterm elections, citing 68 competitive districts in particular.
"The longer the Republicans continue this reckless and irresponsibility ... the weaker they become going into the 2014 cycle," Israel said.
Republicans acknowledge a risk for Republicans with the shutdown. But GOP strategist Kevin Madden also added, "The bigger consideration has to be whether the shutdown issue lingers all the way to November of 2014."
Back in suburban Philadelphia, a 53-year-old disabled veteran, Victor Rosado, was unsure whether his disability check would arrive and said he's disappointed with Fitzpatrick yet still might support him next fall.
"But," Rosado added, "there's a lot of time to change my mind."
Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat in Virginia and Thomas Beaumont in Iowa and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius in Washington contributed to this report.
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