Dead (Congress)Men Walking: Are Philly's suburban GOPers totally doomed? | Will Bunch

Congress Returns
Retiring Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., left, and Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., walk to a meeting with fellow House Republicans last September.

Meet U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan’s worst nightmare: An angry anti-Trump female Delaware County suburbanite with some worn shoe leather.

Kristin Seale, who works for an energy non-profit and lives in Media, had already been thinking about getting involved in local politics after she was elected as a Bernie Sanders delegate to 2016’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, but she said the shock of President Trump’s victory last November “sealed the deal.” She went through a training program for first-time candidates, filed to run for a seat on the Rose Tree Media school board, a longtime GOP bastion, and with her volunteers this fall rang about 3,000 doorbells.

“I had some longer conversations where I tried convincing voters who said they were disgusted (with politics in the Trump era) about why they should not wash their hands of it, how local elections can impact people,” Seale said — and that must have worked. On Tuesday, Seale and the three other Democrats on her slate won an upset victory — one small part of a Democratic tidal wave in the Philadelphia suburbs that elected scores of newcomers and ousted GOP incumbents throughout Delaware, Bucks and Chester counties.

The terrible news for Republican Meehan — whose bizarrely gerrymandered district centers on Delco — and his suburban GOP colleagues Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick and Ryan Costello is that Tuesday’s results now have Democratic activists like Seale jacked up to do this all over again next fall, when the three congressman will be fighting for their political lives in the same upscale suburbs where Democrats rampaged on Tuesday.

They are — politically speaking, after Tuesday’s tidal wave — Dead (Congress)Men Walking.

Even the much ballyhooed luck of the Irish may not be enough for Meehan, Costello and Fitzpatrick when it’s their turn to face the same angry and energized suburban electorate in 2018, barring the completely unexpected (like an upsurge in Trump’s currently anemic popularity or his sudden resignation … don’t hold your breath for either). Is it too late to free the Suburban Philly 3 and see them join the Trump resistance, not just by verbally criticizing the president but by fighting to block his worst policies? Or are they fated to go down with the USS Donald this time next year?

Any Republican — but especially those in affluent districts with a high rate of college grads — must feel shell-shocked after Election Night 2017. Despite the still decrepit and divided state of the national Democratic leadership, the party exceeded every expectation thanks largely to bottom-up grassroots energy sparked by those most angry or most marginalized by a Trump presidency. Each headline on Tuesday night seemed more remarkable than the next: The historic wins by transgender candidates, including the woman in Virginia who ousted a self-proclaimed “homophobe” lawmaker, the Liberian refugee who won in Montana, the Sikhs and Asian-Americans who battled racist flyers and other prejudice to score big victories, the woman in New Jersey so offended by a county freeholder’s sexist joke that she ran against him and won. All this while hundreds of first-timers like Seale were winning under the radar.

Beneath the frothing surface, the center of this tsunami was women — especially more affluent and college-educated women — who’ve been seething since November 8, 2016 that a self-described p-word grabber and serial liar is in the Oval Office after an often misogynistic and racist campaign stymied a highly qualified woman and also put the lie to everything that many had taught their children about honesty, decency, and the American way.

In Virginia, the day’s bellwether race, the win by Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and a string of surprising legislative upsets were centered in the wealthier suburbs just west of Washington, D.C., while closer to home the Democratic near-sweep against Delaware County’s entrenched Republican machine was anchored in high-income Zip codes around Radnor, Newtown Square and Media. Yes, local issues still mattered — but an unexpectedly high turnout in an off-year seemed proof that nothing mattered more than sending a message to Trump, and any of his allies.

That’s bleak news for Meehan, the former prosecutor (and hockey ref) who’s won the 7th District with relative ease since 2010, even more so after the district’s ink-blotter gerrymandering in 2012 to make it a can’t-lose district for Republicans. Since last summer, Meehan — more so than most Republicans — has struggled with how to handle a problem like Donald. He stayed home from Trump’s coronation in Cleveland and wrote-in “Mike Pence” on his presidential ballot — only to turn around and vote with the new president some 88 percent of the time, according to a tracker on the FiveThirtyEight.com website which projected Meehan would follow Trump far less, considering that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried his district in 2016. His pro-Trump votes have already brought scores of protesters to his district office in Springfield even as the ex-hockey ref mightily ducks any town halls.

And that was before Tuesday. Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia history professor and election pundit who watched the Democratic wave wash through his home state, told me that GOP reps in competitive districts like the Pennsylvania 3 now face a kind of Catch-22.with Trump.  “In a sense, they can’t live with Trump and can’t live without him,” he said. “Without [the president’s] backing, the Trump base won’t show up — or will vote for a primary challenger. With Trump’s backing, they energize Democrats and NeverTrump Republicans to oppose them.”

Camera icon Elizabeth Robertson / Staff
Rep. Ryan Costello.

Costello told my Inquirer colleague Jonathan Tamari that “[c]learly Democrats have probably a historic intensity behind that vote [Tuesday] as being the first chance to vote against the president.” Ya think? And Costello acknowledged that many independents and some Republicans joined in. That’s first week Poly-Sci 101 stuff — but what are Costello and his allegedly moderate colleagues going to do about it?

Will the endangered Pennsylvanians will take a page from the playbook of Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (who, interestingly, is resigning rather than face a perilous primary challenge on his right flank) and step up their verbal criticism of Trump’s style and rhetoric? It seems like most voters would see right through that as long as they and other House Republican continue to vote with Trump on the issues.

No, the most dramatic thing that Meehan, Costello and Fitzpatrick can do would be to vote to kill the ill-conceived tax-reform scheme cooked up by congressional GOP leaders and backed by Trump, who is desperate to sign any piece of paper that Congress can get to his desk. The tax plan seems largely a con job that would actually hurt taxpayers in Pennsylvania’s middle-class communities while funneling billions of dollars to corporations (who will pocket the dough instead of hiring more U.S. workers) and the wealthiest 0.1 percent. What’s more, the GOP financial wizards crafted the bill to take away benefits in the anti-Trump coastal areas, especially the deductability of state and local taxes, which are higher in Pennsylvania than most states. For the Pennsylvania GOPers, a vote for the tax boondoggle — or any new push to roll back Obamacare, for that matter — would be political suicide.

Meanwhile, there are other, positive things that would win back middle-of-the-road suburban women — nothing more so than supporting commonsense gun-safety measures, including the background-check bill backed by their Senate colleague Pat Toomey and maybe even bring back the ban on assault weapons that were used in Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, etc., etc., etc. Or, the congressman could prove their anti-Trump bona fides by joining the growing movement, which has some GOP support, to restrict the president’s ability to launch a nuclear first strike.

Or, they could march with Trump like lemmings toward the great sea of 2018.

Here’s the thing: Too many voters in places like Kristin Seale’s Media may already be too mad for the likes of Rep. Meehan to do one blessed thing to prevent their defeat next November. My unsolicited and possibly unwelcome advice to them would be to resist the worst of Trumpism, no matter what. It may not save their jobs on Capitol Hill, but it could save the country. And, facing unemployment, wouldn’t you want that on your resume?

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