The New Republicans of Pennsylvania
September 25, 2020
Local Republicans have eroded the traditional Democratic lead in Pennsylvania, mostly by picking off Democrats who have become disaffected.Photograph by Shannon Stapleton / Reuters / Alamy
n a Wednesday afternoon in August, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Lance Stange, the chair of the local Republican Party, led a dozen volunteers and campaign staffers in an effort to assemble a thousand Donald Trump
yard signs. Stange, who is forty-four and wears his white hair slicked back, was calm, though the mood in the office was frantic. The President was arriving the following afternoon to host a rally outside of Scranton, Joe Biden
’s home town, on the same day that Biden would accept
his Presidential nomination, at the Democratic National Convention. The visit was spur of the moment. “It just came together in the last twenty-four hours, but we’re working through it,” Stange told me. He was hoping to line a two-mile stretch of road between the airport and the event space with boosterish messages, so that Trump would see them on his way to the rally and be pleased. Stange told me that he also uses the yard signs for another purpose: when someone orders one, he checks her voter registration, and if she isn’t a Republican he tries to recruit her. He said that he has been flooded with requests for signs from disaffected Democrats. “If I’m delivering a Trump sign to a registered Democrat, believe me, they’re going to hear from me,” he said.
Stange, who was born and raised in Scranton, comes from a longtime Republican family, a rarity in the area. For decades, Scranton was a coal town dominated by labor unions, and almost everyone was a Democrat. Stange’s family owned a chain of grocery and convenience stores, and kept quiet about politics—being outspoken would have been bad for business. At twenty, Stange called the local G.O.P. headquarters, asked to volunteer, and was told that he should try the Young Republicans. “I was a little disappointed,” he told me. But, before long, he came to chair the group, went on to serve as secretary of the local Party, and is now the G.O.P. chair in Lackawanna County and the caucus chair for the nine counties that make up northeastern Pennsylvania.
For the past couple decades, he has worked to strengthen the Republican Party in Lackawanna County; his successes on the local level reflect a general trend in the state. Pennsylvania has been a battleground since the nineteen-thirties, but, in recent years, the state has appeared to shift rightward. Obama won Pennsylvania by a wide margin in 2008, and more narrowly in 2012. In 2016, however, Trump took Pennsylvania by forty-four thousand votes. Lackawanna County has followed a similar pattern. In 2008, it went to Obama by twenty-eight thousand votes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton—whose grandfather worked in a nearby lace factory, and whose grandparents are buried on the west side of town—managed to hold it by only three thousand votes. “Lackawanna County was blue on the map on CNN,” Paige Gebhardt Cognetti, the mayor of Scranton, told me. “But that painted over the truth, which was a huge loss of votes.”
Stange is hoping to turn the region red, primarily by recruiting and registering new Republicans. He focusses on white working-class voters in the area, a demographic that has historically belonged to the Democratic Party; he calls these people the “forgotten man or woman,” and notes that they have been particularly sympathetic to Trump’s message. To pinpoint them, Stange measures the registration figures of individual districts against their election performance. He recently located a precinct in Carbondale, in the north of Lackawanna County, where only twenty-eight per cent of residents are registered Republicans but where Trump won fifty-seven per cent of the vote in 2016. “Clearly, there are a number of Democrats and Independents ripe for recruitment,” he told me.
Stange has established a large, visible G.O.P. office in a building in downtown Scranton that previously served as a sandwich shop. Taped to its walls are brightly colored signs that read “#BigGovSucks” and “Socialism: You Make It, They Take It.” He set up the office’s landline to forward to his cell phone, which he answers at all hours. The nearest Democratic Party office is in Peckville, a fifteen-minute drive away. “If Biden has an office here in Scranton, it’s a secret,” Stange told me. “I don’t know where it is.” He makes sure that his office posts on social media every day; he pointed out that the local Democratic Party often goes days without posting.
Stange had planned extensive outreach efforts in the lead-up to the election, but, when the coronavirus pandemic
hit, he had to cancel them. Volunteers made calls from home, and their work, along with that of the rest of the Trump campaign, was coördinated on an app. Around May 1st, however, Stange led the campaign back into the physical world, to do “the more conventional grassroots stuff.” His volunteers have since visited fifty thousand homes in northeastern Pennsylvania, knocking on doors and talking to residents. The local Democrats, by contrast, have assiduously avoided face-to-face contact; most of their home visits are limited to hanging flyers on closed doors. To compensate, they have tried to reach voters remotely, through phone calls, text messages, and postcards. Jenn Ridder, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, told me that going door to door during a pandemic is dangerous and unethical. She wrote in an e-mail that the local campaign’s “full-scale organizing program” was “helping everyday people plug into our campaign in ways they’re most comfortable with.” Stange, referring to a Politico
article, said that, in the past several months, the Trump campaign had knocked on roughly a million doors a week; the Biden campaign had knocked on none. “You can’t win this state without knocking on doors,” he told me.
When I visited the G.O.P. office, the day before Trump’s visit to Scranton, Stange stood behind a counter, wearing a gray wool suit. Campaign workers, mostly thick-waisted white men in maga hats and shorts, unpacked boxes of Trump-Pence placards. Owing to the pandemic, Tom Wolf, the state’s Democratic governor, had placed limitations on public gatherings, which frustrated the campaign workers. “Typically, we’d have twenty thousand people,” Stange said. “But we’re only allowed to register two hundred and fifty.” At the office, no one was wearing a mask, including Stange. When I asked about this, he pulled a red-white-and-blue “Trump” mask from his briefcase. “We respect the virus,” he said. I asked what the policy was for door-knockers: Did the campaign leave it up to their volunteers to decide whether or not to wear a mask? “Yeah, um, we do,” Stange said, though he added that he thought wearing one was the “respectful thing” to do. “Like I said, we respect the virus.”
In Pennsylvania, Republican registration is outpacing that of Democrats. Since 2016, the G.O.P. has added more than a hundred thousand registered voters in the state, while the Democrats have lost eighty thousand. The precise meaning of these numbers is somewhat contentious. Democratic strategists point out that their party has registered more first-time voters, and that, over all, Democrats still have about seven hundred thousand more registered members in the state than Republicans do. Still, by any measure, local Republicans have eroded the traditional Democratic lead, mostly by picking off Democrats who have become disaffected. This pattern has been mirrored in other battleground states, such as North Carolina and Florida, where Republicans appear to be closing historic gaps in registration.
In Pennsylvania, the trend is most pronounced in its northeastern corner. In Lackawanna County, registered Democrats have historically outnumbered Republicans three to one, but, over the past several years, the margin has dwindled to two to one, according to Chris Patrick, the local Democratic chair. “To see this flip in this area is extraordinary,” Christopher Borick, a political analyst at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, told me. Many of the defectors are white voters without college educations. “Even before 2016, you have lifelong white working-class voters in both northeastern and southwestern Pennsylvania who have a ‘D’ on their registration but have been voting for Republicans,” Borick said. Catholic voters in the region are also leaving the Democratic Party, largely because of the Party’s increasingly liberal stance on reproductive rights. “Now you’ve got an Irish Catholic Presidential candidate struggling to win his own town and his own county,” Borick said. (He thought that the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the possibility that a Trump appointee would move to restrict abortion access, might cause more Catholics to defect, though it might also motivate Democratic turnout. “For those voters concerned above all with reproductive rights on both sides, it’s probably a reinforcing issue,” he said.) Cognetti, the Scranton mayor, told me that residents have also become more skeptical of institutions and more sympathetic to Trump’s self-presentation as an outsider. “Basically, every institution of authority in Pennsylvania has let people down in some way in the last decade,” she said. “The sex scandals at Penn State and in the Catholic Church, along with elected officials all over the state going to jail. The absolute crumbling of trust in authority is real, and that can’t be ignored.”
In 2016, the Republican Party noticed that many of these voters, even those who remained registered as Democrats, voted for Trump in large numbers. After the election, the Party began an intensive outreach program, involving canvassing, mailers, and targeted advertising. “We have seen, over time, the Republican ground game be more effective in Pennsylvania,” Borick told me, and this has resulted in an uptick in Republican registrations. Registration is a Party’s most powerful tool, Borick added: the G.O.P. will now be able to remain in touch with these newly registered voters in the lead-up to the election, coördinate getting them to polling stations, and encourage them to vote for down-ballot Republicans. Local Party leaders also hope that, more subjectively, the registrations will shift residents’ political identity, encouraging them to think of themselves not as independent-minded Democrats but as Republicans, and thus cementing their loyalty in the long term.
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The day after I visited the Republican headquarters, I drove to Old Forge, fifteen minutes outside of Scranton, where Trump was holding his rally, at a building-supply store. Hundreds of people packed the streets outside. A d.j. spun “God Bless the U.S.A.” at full volume on the side of the road. “I don’t care who you are,” he announced into a microphone. “President Trump, the most powerful man in the world, is coming to Old Forge.” Stange, still in a suit, despite the August heat, stood nearby, sipping a Red Bull.
Outside Valley Auto Parts, I met a nineteen-year-old named Mackenzie Mitchko, who was attending the rally with her mother. She wore Gucci sunglasses and a tie-dyed “Make America Great Again” T-shirt, and waved a flag that featured a sketch of Trump and the slogan “Fuck your feelings.” “A friend gave it to me, when he heard we were coming to this rally,” she told me. Her family had been longtime Democrats, but, a decade ago, the factory where Mitchko’s mother worked, making CDs and DVDs, moved to Mexico, and her job disappeared. In 2015, the family heard Trump speak, and was attracted to his promises to protect workers. Last fall, when Mitchko was attending college at Concordia, in Bronxville, New York, she felt that the other students there scorned her support for Trump. “I didn’t talk much about how I felt about the President there, because people told me I was uneducated,” she said. This only entrenched her beliefs. After finishing her first year, she left college, in part because she felt out of place politically, and decided to stay home and study to become a dental hygienist. Earlier this year, she switched her registration from Democrat to Republican. This is the first Presidential election in which she is old enough to vote.
Mitchko’s father had recently become famous on social media for handing out fourteen thousand Trump yard signs from their garage. On the day of the rally, he had been asked to join the President’s entourage, and his wife and daughter tried to spot him in the motorcade. The family’s support hadn’t wavered during the pandemic, and they were unimpressed by criticisms of how Trump had handled the crisis. “This disease is in a hundred countries,” Mitchko told me. “Why is it his fault that we have it here?” A spike in infection rates in the U.S. over the summer seemed to them to be a Democratic ruse to scare people into voting by mail, so that Democrats who worked for the Postal Service could manipulate ballots. “We’re voting in person,” Mitchko told me.
Several new Republicans I spoke to, including the Mitchkos, had redoubled their support for Trump following this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. One woman, who preferred to be identified only by her first name, Cathy, hadn’t voted since she registered as a Democrat, seventeen years earlier. “I’m voting for Trump because of safety,” she told me. She thought that the way Democratic governors and mayors were yielding to social unrest signalled the disintegration of American order. “They’re not allowing the President to bring in federal agents, and that’s not what our forefathers wanted,” she told me. Dave Elliott, Scranton’s former police chief, told me that he, too, was concerned about the protests. “I supported Clinton because he was pro-police,” he said. He had once liked Biden, too, because the senator spoke the language of law and order. “Now he has completely flipped,” Eliott said. “He’s vilifying police officers today and turning criminals into victims.” He would be voting for Trump in the upcoming election.
One evening, I visited another new Republican, a carpenter named Mike Mazza, at his house, beside a highway about thirty minutes north of Scranton. Mazza is an amateur taxidermist, and in his home he had mounted several buck heads, from animals that he’d shot himself; on a table stood a lamp of braided antlers. We sat on the porch, which was painted pale green. Mazza had grown up as a Democrat, but, in 2019, a local township supervisor was indicted for violating the Clean Water Act, and the subsequent scandal made Mazza disillusioned about politics. (The supervisor pleaded not guilty, and the case is ongoing.) Mazza thinks that Trump is fighting this kind of corruption in Washington. He has also become a devotee of QAnon
, a far-right conspiracy theory holding that a Democratic cabal of pedophiles is trying to take down Trump. He believes, among other things, that faith in God will protect QAnon followers from the coronavirus. Mazza had hung an oversized banner on his porch featuring a large “Q” and the QAnon slogan, “Where we go one, we go all.” As we were talking, a woman he didn’t know pulled into the driveway in a white Escalade and beeped. “Where we go one, we go all!” she shouted from the window. Mazza told me that this happens as often as three times in a day.
Democrats may have hope in Pennsylvania. The southeastern part of the state—Philadelphia and the suburbs immediately surrounding it—look increasingly blue. Ridder, the Biden spokesperson, told me that the campaign has been “building on the gains Democrats made in 2018 in the suburbs.” This trend is good for the Party in the long term: the population of blue parts of the state is increasing, while the population of red parts is shrinking. Furthermore, Pennsylvania’s young voters appear to be more involved in the political process in this cycle, perhaps motivated by the dangers of climate change and gun violence. “If young people continue that surge, then Republicans are in for a rout,” Tom Bonier, the C.E.O. of TargetSmart, a Democratic data-analysis firm working for the Biden campaign, told me. Early-voting numbers are encouraging for Democrats. Sixty-nine per cent of mail-in ballots in the state have been requested by Democrats; only twenty-four per cent were requested by Republicans. It’s not yet clear whether this reflects differing attitudes about mail-in voting or indicates something significant about turnout. “You might think that Democrats are just banking votes early,” Bonier said. “But twenty-six per cent of those requests come from people who didn’t vote in 2016.”
One afternoon, I visited Patricia Healey, a seventy-year-old teacher and a new Democrat. Healey lives on Scranton’s west side, in a white bungalow surrounded by trellises of anemones and roses. Around the corner, there were duelling signs. Most supported Trump: several large signs bearing his name were stapled to porches. One, against him, read “S.T.D.—Stop the Donald.” There was no sign in front of Healey’s house, though she supported Biden. “Here’s the thing: I don’t know anyone distributing Biden signs,” she told me when I arrived, ushering me to a wicker chair on her wide front porch. “I thought I might get a Trump one and cross it out, but I thought better of it.”
Healey ducked inside to get her face shield before sitting down and joining me. She’d been a Republican all her life, because that was the political party her grandparents had chosen, in the small, rural town of German, Pennsylvania. They were fiscal conservatives, and Healey, largely out of loyalty to them, remained a Republican. In 2016, she’d attended a Trump rally in nearby Wilkes-Barre, and was drawn to the energy of the unlikely candidate. She’d grown sick of the ways that both parties stymied each other, and of the resulting inaction. In the end, she voted for Trump, seeing it as a vote for change in Washington; she hadn’t made up her mind until she’d tugged the curtain behind her in the voting booth. “It was last minute,” she told me. “We’d had Clintons in the White House before, and it wasn’t that I was against them. I just worried about all the baggage surrounding them.”
The past four years, however, had dismayed her. “As soon as he started—the way he tweets all the time—I had my doubts,” Healey said. “I wished he’d just shut up.” Then, as Trump began to gut public programs and institutions in favor of corporations, she grew frightened. “I went from hope to disappointment to anger,” she said. In Lackawanna County, Healey had taught high-school Spanish for thirty-two years. “What people don’t realize is that he’s going after public education,” she said. “If he wins, he’ll go after unions and pensions, along with social security.” Healey considers herself an environmentalist, and was particularly appalled that Trump had sold off public lands to oil and gas companies. She believed that, if anyone had doubts that Trump was incompetent, they need only look at his Administration’s failure in handling the pandemic. “I wish I’d done my homework before I voted,” she said.
Healey had been watching local TV ads in which the Trump campaign promoted falsehoods about Biden. Several claimed that he wanted to ban fracking outright. “Yes, Biden’s against fracking, but only on federal land,” she told me. “When I see those ads, the fear comes in, because people aren’t going to check into it.” She worried that Trump was breaching political norms, and that four more years would give him enough time to unravel American democracy. “I know it might sound bizarre, but I really wouldn’t put it past him to declare himself a dictator,” she said.
Healey took little comfort in Biden’s lead in national polls. She was concerned that people would stay home on Election Day, fearing the coronavirus or believing that Biden will win handily and underestimating Trump. “With this guy, you don’t have it all sewn up. Trump’s got every angle,” she said. “He’s a shark, and you probably can’t even see what he’s got going on. You can’t be complacent.” Despite the health risk, she and her husband, both in their seventies, were going to vote in person. “Yes, we are in that group that’s supposed to exercise caution, but we want to make sure it’s counted,” she said. Healey had never paid much attention to politics before now. “I hate politics,” she told me. “But we don’t have a choice. We’ve got to get out there.”
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