In Pennsylvania, Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick is a Republican voice in a Democrat-trending district. Six hours north, Rep. Chris Pappas is a Democrat representing a district that voted for Trump in 2016 and has flipped partisan control five times since 2000.
So when the two teamed up to send a letter to House leadership calling for bipartisan solutions to the COVID-19 crisis, it was hardly a surprise. What is surprising, however, is how the two members’ fortunes have changed in the wake of the 2020 election.
Divided by red and blue, the two members have some notable similarities. Both entered Congress young: Fitzpatrick was 43, Pappas 38. Both campaigned on moderation, resisting the push in their parties toward the more activist base. Pappas comes from a politically-active family. (They own a popular restaurant, the Puritan Backroom, that’s a must-stop for politicians campaigning in New Hampshire). Fitzpatrick was elected to fill the congressional vacancy when his brother Mike term-limited himself out of Congress.
Now they’re joining together to appeal for bipartisanship.
“We urge you to make additional COVID-19 relief a priority in the early days of the 117th Congress,” they wrote.” Additional COVID-19 relief would help ease the daily struggles too many Americans are facing just to stay afloat and help chart a course back to economic recovery for the American people.”
In a press release, Fitzpatrick called out his fellow members for letting disunity slow COVID relief. “Last year, Congress spent months on partisan bickering while the American people suffered,” Fitzpatrick said. “Those months of inaction were completely unacceptable and that cannot be the case this year. The only way forward is a bipartisan relief package that delivers results for our constituents.”
Pappas encouraged rather than criticizing. “While the bipartisan legislation we have already advanced has relieved some of the economic hardship being felt across the country, it is clear that our work so far is only a down payment on what remains to be done,” he said.
But while their message is unity, the two members’ political fortunes are very different,
Six months ago, Fitzpatrick was viewed as a potential victim of the coming Biden victory expected to sweep across the Keystone State. Both Politico and Real Clear Politics called the race a toss-up. “Pa.’s Fitzpatrick Hopes He’s One Republican Who Can Beat Back a Democratic Wave,” was the headline in September. His strategy has been to seek common ground in Congress. The Lugar Center, a D.C.-based think tank that measures and encourages bipartisanship in Congress ranked Fitzpatrick as the most bipartisan legislator in the last Congress, as he earned the highest bipartisan rating the Lugar Center has ever tallied.
Pappas, on the other hand, represents a district that’s been trending Democrat in a state Republican presidential candidates have only carried once since 1992. Rather than reaching across the aisle, Pappas was the first member of Congress representing a Trump district to call for the president’s first impeachment last summer. His re-election was never considered in danger.
Given the trends, Pappas appeared to be in the stronger political position. Then came the 2020 election.
Fitzpatrick won a huge 57-43 percent win, thanks in part to a surge in GOP turnout in Pennsylvania. It was part of a stunning night for congressional Democrats, who lost 13 seats and now have a narrow 10-seat majority. This will give moderate members like Fitzpatrick an unusual level of influence.
The Pennsylvania Republican looks more formidable than ever.
Meanwhile in New Hampshire, Pappas is a “dead congressman watching.” Republicans took control of the entire state government, holding the governor’s office and wresting both houses of the legislature from the Democrats. As a result, they entirely control the upcoming redistricting. And they’ve already made it clear that Pappas’s NH-01 seat is their top target.
At last week’s state Republican Party meeting, party chair Steve Stepanek told the Zoom-call attendees that, thanks to re-districting, “I can stand here today and guarantee you that we will send a conservative Republican to Washington, D.C. as a Congress person in 2022.”
Speculation has already begun that Pappas may seek another office next year, perhaps even a run for governor. But few in New Hampshire expect to see him back in Congress.
And then there’s the traditional midterm backlash, when the party that controls the White House traditionally loses seats in Congress. Assuming the trend continues, Democrats are likely to struggle to find a strong contender to take on Fitzpatrick in the Delaware Valley, and Pappas’ uphill climb for re-election will be even steeper.
This tale of two congressmen is a reminder that American politics is full of surprises and events rarely unfold as expected. And while the presidential election dominated the headlines, the most important storyline of the 2020 election may have been the GOP’s surprising down ballot strength, not Donald Trump’s defeat.