“There are definitely Republicans who are motivated by it, but we’re seeing in this county, the backlash is huge,” incumbent Democratic Commissioner Bob Harvie said. | Zach Montellaro/POLITICO

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — An obscure race for county commissioner underway here in a suburb outside of Philadelphia could tell us a lot about who will win the presidential election in 2024.

Bucks County is one of the swingiest counties in one of the swingiest states in America.

President Joe Biden won it in 2020. So did Sen. John Fetterman and Gov. Josh Shapiro two years later. But it’s represented by a Republican in Congress, perennial battlegrounder Brian Fitzpatrick, and conservatives staged a takeover of the county’s largest school board in 2021, banning what it calls “sexualized content” in the curriculum.

This year it is home to a local race that has the hallmarks of a race for national office: Candidates sparring over book bans in schools, crime and public safety, and the security of democracy in the next presidential election.

“As Pennsylvania goes, so goes the presidential race in 2024. And as Bucks County goes, Pennsylvania will go. Everyone should care deeply about this,” said state Sen. Steve Santarsiero, the chair of the Bucks County Democratic Party.

Democrats won control of the three-member county board of commissioners in 2019, capturing it for the first time since 1983. But Fitzpatrick once again won reelection in 2020 — even as Biden carried his district — and in 2021 Republicans roared back and swept a slate of row offices here.

Now, Republicans are looking to recapture control of the county board this year.

A loss for either party would be a significant warning sign ahead of 2024. For Democrats, the inability to hold on to recently-flipped offices in a county they’ve reliably but narrowly carried on the presidential level could be a sign of waning enthusiasm. And for Republicans, a failure to recapture a county commission that they dominated for decades could mean a key battleground county is continuing to slip through their grasp.

Bucks, too, presents an all-in-one geographic test case ahead of 2024, stretching from neighborhoods that directly butt up against northeast Philadelphia, with a large suburban core of the county, and more rural areas in upper Bucks. Democrats have begun overperforming in the suburbs, particularly in Pennsylvania, so whoever emerges victorious in the county commissioner race could be a sign of which way the suburbs are leaning.

Bucks has been embroiled in culture war fights, like many other suburbs across the country. Republicans won Central Bucks School District board races in 2021 in a fight, in part, over mask mandates. But the new majority has also embraced book bans on titles with so-called “sexualized content” and prohibited teachers from displaying Pride flags.

Democrats have decried the involvement of the hyper-conservative group Moms for Liberty in Central Bucks, the county’s largest school district and one of the biggest in the state, and they argue the school board’s new policies spark backlash and sharp protests.

“There are definitely Republicans who are motivated by it, but we’re seeing in this county, the backlash is huge,” incumbent Democratic Commissioner Bob Harvie said. “We’re seeing a lot of very, very motivated and angry people on our side who just don’t think schools should be made into political battles.”

Harvie and Diane Marseglia, the other Democrat on the county board of commissioners, are seeking reelection, as is Republican Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo. Running alongside DiGirolamo is Pamela Van Blunk, the county controller who won office in that 2021 sweep.

An unusual statutory setup in Pennsylvania guarantees the minority party will hold one seat in Bucks. Each party puts up two nominees and voters can vote for up to two candidates in November, with the top three vote-getters earning a spot. County officials in both parties say that this, effectively, means it is a race between Harvie and Van Blunk, with the other incumbents having much longer tenures to carry them to victory.

Harvie and Marseglia said in an interview at a diner in Levittown, Pa., that the blowback to the controversial school board was palpable and that voters would respond to it in November in their races. If they do, it could be an early marker for a more aggressive approach by national Democrats eager to punch back in similar fights across the country.

Bucks United — the overarching campaign to get the two elected — has tried to tie Van Blunk into the fight in the school district. A recent ad from the group said she is “no moderate,” saying a “MAGA extremist helping elect book-banning school boards” across the commonwealth is one of her biggest supporters, calling her too extreme for the county.

But Van Blunk sought to distance herself from the school board fights. When asked about the board in an interview at the county GOP’s headquarters, a converted 1800s-era home in Doylestown, she demurred, and chafed at the description in the ad. “I am not a MAGA Republican. I am a Bucks County Republican,” she said.

“The current Democrat[ic] commissioners are very divisive, they’re bringing the culture wars,” she said. “Bringing in divisive culture wars in an area of government where that’s not their role or realm, you’re only further dividing people.”

Van Blunk, instead, said that one of “the biggest issues facing Bucks County is a significant increase in crime,” touting the endorsement of a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. She also said she would be focused on fighting the opioid epidemic.

Democrats, too, say they’re campaigning on local issues. Harvie and Marseglia highlight modernizing county services since taking control of the board, as well as a program that pairs a social worker “co-responder” with police departments.

But the rules for the 2024 election in Bucks County are also central to Democrats’ pitch. “County commissioners control how you vote,” Harvie told a meeting of roughly two dozen Democrats from Middletown Township, warning that a loss this November would mean that next year’s election could be determined by “Republican rules.”

At risk, he says, are drop boxes that county officials installed and ballot curing policies for mail ballots. He told the crowd in 2020 that Bucks was sued eleven times, either by state Republicans or the Trump campaign, over its election policies and won each case.

Without a Democratic commission, “the road will be much harder for any Democrat running next year: President, Senate, Congress, whatever,” he said.

And Democrats are also sharply critical of Patricia Poprik, the county GOP chair, who was one of the “fake electors” in Pennsylvania in 2020, saying that the county party should not be allowed near the mechanics of an election in a critical swing county.

In an interview, Poprik brushed off her role: “Some people call me a RINO and some call me a fake elector, so I must be doing something right,” she said.

Poprik described her decision to sign on as a “protective mechanism” as lawsuits were ongoing in the state, saying it “never came to be because the lawsuits were never won, so it’s moot.” Unlike many other states’ false electors, Pennsylvania’s slate included a clause that their votes should be counted only if after a “final non-appealable Court Order or other proceedings prescribed by law, we are ultimately recognized as being the duly elected and qualified Electors.”

When asked if she regretted her role, she told POLITICO she did not. “Now you know a lot more, but what we knew at the time, you knew there were lawsuits going on and there was a possibility that you would be an elector.”

That, Democrats say, is not an excuse. “Just because in Pennsylvania, they were smart enough to insist on language which may yet be sufficient to avoid criminal charges, does not mean that they were not part of an overall conspiracy to undermine the legitimacy of our presidential election in 2020,” said Santarsiero, the county Democratic chair. “They’re not absolved at that.”

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