Democrats muscle into GOP primaries in hopes of keeping House majority

Judith Zeng

Democrats are muscling into Republican congressional primaries with legal challenges to knock candidates off the ballot or otherwise impact contests in a bid to boost their chances of keeping the House majority.

The law firm run by Democratic superlawyer Marc Elias has filed legal challenges to a cadre of Republican congressional candidates in recent weeks. In most instances, the intercessions have been in races in which Democrats have struggled to recruit top-tier talent or face other obstacles.

“Democrats’ best hope this cycle is to try to rig the system in their favor,” said Samantha Bullock, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Lawyers from Mr. Elias’ firm have strategically worked to boot from the ballot candidates who could pose general election threats. They have also moved to force moderate incumbent House Republicans into head-to-head primary matchups with far-right rivals.

The political machinations are nowhere more evident than in the Republican primary for Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a three-term moderate Republican, is in a two-person race against a political outsider running in the mold of former President Donald Trump.

Although Mr. Fitzpatrick is heavily favored to win on May 17, Mr. Elias’ firm has largely engineered the contest’s configuration.


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Mr. Fitzpatrick had four challengers at the start of this year. By mid-March, the figure had dropped to three, with Mr. Fitzpatrick vying against Caroline Avery and Alex Entin.

Mrs. Avery was booted from the primary ballot after a legal challenge to her petitions was filed in late March. According to court documents, three lawyers employed by Mr. Elias’ firm were listed as representatives for the person who filed the legal challenge.

The move helped set up a direct contest between Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Entin. Mr. Elias’ firm did not respond to requests for comment on this article.

Strategists say the legal maneuvering was a brilliant Democratic ploy.

“Campaigns are zero-sum propositions, so it only makes sense to seek out every advantage possible, including picking your own opponent,” said Colin Strother, who has run several high-profile Democratic campaigns.

Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District, based in the Philadelphia suburbs, is a political bellwether. Although enrollment is split about evenly between the parties, Mr. Fitzpatrick won the seat in 2020 comfortably even as Democrat Joseph R. Biden carried it on his way to the White House.


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Although Democrats have long sought to oust Mr. Fitzpatrick, the incumbent’s bipartisan profile and fundraising prowess have kept general election opponents at bay. This cycle seems no different. The likely Democratic candidate is unknown and a lackluster fundraiser.

“As the far-left groups have repeatedly failed to defeat Rep. Fitzpatrick in the general election, we’ve been getting multiple recent reports of a shift in strategy that now attempts to infiltrate the Republican primary electorate to try to knock out Rep. Fitzpatrick … [and] flip the seat blue in November,” said Nancy McCarty, a campaign spokeswoman for Mr. Fitzpatrick. “The disclosure of this recent legal maneuver is the clearest evidence to date.”

Mr. Elias’ firm attempted a similar feat in the Republican primary for Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, but with less success.

Although the 12th Congressional District is reliably blue, partly because it is made up of large swaths of urban Pittsburgh, local Republicans have been bullish about their chances.

The optimism is mainly because of Democratic infighting between moderates and liberals over a replacement for Rep. Michael Doyle, who is retiring after holding the seat since 1995. Republicans, meanwhile, are gearing up to run “Mike” Doyle, a local suburban elected official who is no relation to the incumbent.

Republicans say they can pick up significant crossover support with a candidate who has high name recognition throughout the district if Democrats nominate a candidate far outside the political mainstream. The Republican threat was significant enough that Mr. Elias’ firm attempted to have Mr. Doyle thrown off the ballot.

In April, several Democratic lawyers, including those working for Mr. Elias, challenged Mr. Doyle’s qualifications for the Republican primary. The challenge ultimately failed.

“The Democrats’ desperate attempt to knock Mike Doyle off the ballot is telling. It shows they are scared,” said Sam DeMarco, chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Caucus. “They know that Mike Doyle is well-poised to defeat whichever of the far-left and socialist activists that the Democrats put up as their candidate in the May primary.”

Democrats and Republicans have used legal maneuvering to help shape election outcomes in their favor. This year, though, Democrats are facing a tough political environment.

On President Biden’s watch, inflation has soared to 8.5% over the past year, eating away at the paychecks of Americans, while crime rates have skyrocketed across urban and suburban communities.

Abroad, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has scrambled global energy markets, pushing prices in the U.S. ever higher. Coupled with the lingering fallout from the collapse of Afghanistan, the outbreak of war in Eastern Europe has Americans increasingly uncomfortable with Mr. Biden’s stewardship of the country.

Polls show Mr. Biden’s approval rating at an all-time low. Voters’ poor view of the White House has bled into their view of Congress, which Democrats narrowly control.

Republicans have continuously led Democrats on the generic congressional ballot since November.

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