BETHLEHEM TOWNSHIP, Pa. — President Donald Trump doesn’t need to worry that special counsel Robert Mueller is going to bring him down.
No, if anyone removes Trump from office it seems increasingly likely it’ll be the normal way, at the ballot box. And because of people like Donald Wright Jr., 71, a self-described independent who had long pined for a businessman in the Oval Office.
Just not this one.
“I’d write in Big Bird first before I voted for Trump. No way I could ever vote for him,” said Wright, who works in consulting and analytics and voted for Hillary Clinton.
A longtime registered Republican, Wright said he was driven from the party by Trump, changing his registration to Democrat in 2017 after giving the president a shot as leader of the country — and determining that Trump cared only about his political base, not the rest of the country.
Wright lives in the tree-lined suburbs of Bethlehem Township, Northampton County, in the Lehigh Valley, a key swing region of Pennsylvania at a time when the Philadelphia suburbs are getting bluer and rural Pennsylvania is growing redder.
The county was one of three in the state where a majority of voters went twice for Barack Obama then swung to Donald Trump in 2016. But in the two years since, Democrats up and down the ballot have trounced the GOP in Northampton.
It’s not Trump Country. But in a state the president won by less than 1 percent of the vote, it serves as a bellwether for the fragile coalition of Pennsylvania voters that came together three years ago and will need to be pieced together if Trump hopes to carry it again.
In 2016, that meant strong support in rural, traditionally Republican parts of the state, big gains among white, working-class areas that traditionally voted for Democrats, and enough support from other Republicans in suburbs and elsewhere who wouldn’t vote for Clinton.
Democrats see opportunity here, too. Clinton’s losses in the so-called blue wall of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan cost her the White House, and Democrats vying for their party’s nomination in 2020 are expressing renewed commitment there.
Unlike Luzerne in the Northeast or Erie in the Northwest — the two other longtime Democratic bastions, both former industrial areas that have suffered economic dislocation and decline, that flipped to Trump — Northampton is one of the few areas where Trump performed well in Pennsylvania in 2016 where the population is actually growing.
That gives him a chance to expand his base of support, if he can — or for Democrats to win voters and take back the White House.
Democrats thumped the GOP in local races in 2017, and Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey carried the county by double-digit margins last year. Susan Wild, also a Democrat, won an open House seat comfortably in a newly drawn congressional district, parts of which had been represented by a moderate Republican who opposed Trump.
“The Lehigh Valley is really a swing area,” said former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (R., Pa.), who preceded Wild and retired from Congress last year. “The Lehigh Valley is still purple, with a slight tinge of blue. Slight tinge. But that can change.”
Solidly red, rural areas remain firmly in Trump’s column, and the suburbs have continued to shift steadily to the left. That puts the spotlight on a handful of counties where turnout can swing the overall election, such as Erie, Luzerne, and Lackawanna. Northampton County is also key to Trump’s coalition, but it differs from the others in some important ways.
Adjacent to Allentown, Pennsylvania’s third-largest city, Northampton is about a 90-minute drive north of Philadelphia and shares the same media market, meaning residents see similar news, ads, and other programming as Philly and its collar counties.
Northampton has two urban centers, Bethlehem and Easton, surrounded by more rural territory. The Lehigh Valley region had been home to Bethlehem Steel until it dissolved in 2003, and was also at the center of the country’s cement industry, but most plants closed decades ago. (The Northampton Area High School’s sports teams are still known as the Konkrete Kids.)
Even as those industries declined, the local economy was buttressed by anchors such as the county’s three universities, medical institutions such as the Lehigh Valley Health Network, Sands Casino on the site of the Bethlehem Steel plant, and Easton-based Crayola. While the population has declined in other parts of the state that swung heavily to Trump, Northampton has seen steady growth, according to the Census Bureau.
Median household income is also higher in Northampton County than in other swing counties, and a greater share of adults 25 or older have bachelor’s degrees — demographics that tend to align with Democrats.