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What it’s like to be a Democrat in the reddest county in Pennsylvania

Fulton County is Trump country, the reddest of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. And it has only gotten redder — except for Michael Purnell.

Michael Purnell of Fulton County switched parties from Republican to Democratic after Trump won.
Michael Purnell of Fulton County switched parties from Republican to Democratic after Trump won.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

McCONNELLSBURG, Pa. — His name appears on the bumpers of trucks parked outside the dollar store, and on political signs spiked into the snow where the grass meets gravel roads. On a large mural outside a dog-grooming business, President Donald Trump flashes a six-foot smile.

“People from other countries stop and get their pictures taken there,” said Randy Bunch, the recently elected county commissioner who had the mural made.

Fulton County is Trump country. In the 2016 election, he received 84% of the vote, making it the “reddest” of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. And it has only gotten redder — except for Michael Purnell.

“I wish the president literally smiled like that,” Purnell said as he drove by the Trump mural on a frigid weekday afternoon in January. “That would be wonderful if he were actually smiling without laughing at somebody or making fun of somebody.”

Purnell, 57, was a lifelong Republican who grew up and worked on a dairy farm in nearby Wells Tannery. His family had always been conservative, he said. He watched the 2016 election unfold as many others did elsewhere in the country: He couldn’t fathom Trump winning the GOP nomination, let alone the presidency. Repelled by Trump’s behavior, he voted for John Kasich in the Pennsylvania primary.

“I was convinced that as people dropped out, support would gravitate toward some reasonable alternative to Trump, but his percentages improved as time went on,” Purnell said. “I was horrified.”

When Trump won, Purnell became a Democrat, switching around the time of the inauguration. Between December 2016 and early last month, Democrats lost 365 voters in Fulton County. Republicans added 325. They currently outnumber Democrats, 5,964 to 2,090.

Purnell blames the Democratic establishment’s neglect of red counties.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania is critical in 2020. Here’s how Trump could win or lose it.

Fulton County Democrats, he said, aren’t like their urban counterparts in Philadelphia, 175 miles east. Purnell, a former pastor in the United Methodist Church, still considers himself conservative and doesn’t want to say whom he voted for in November 2016 — except that it wasn’t Trump. Many Democrats here are conservative or moderate, he said, people of faith who hunt deer. And “there’s still strong support for Trump” among them, he added.

He was thrilled, he said, when Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah voted to convict Trump of abuse of power last week, the only Republican who voted against Trump in his impeachment trial. But in Fulton County, as in Washington, stating publicly that you’re not a Trump supporter draws a line.

A candidate for county commissioner in 2015, Purnell hasn’t ruled out another stab at elected office. He’s not enamored with either party right now because candidates in both, he said, are beholden to big money.

Bunch, the county commissioner, believes that many Fulton County residents traditionally registered as Democrats to gain and keep state jobs. Over the years, he said, a lot of them switched to Republican because their true feelings were more aligned with the GOP.

“Most of the Democrats in Fulton County are Democrats because their parents were,” he said. “It’s like a football team. They just followed who their parents followed.”

Bunch said his father was a Democrat. Bunch voted for Democrats in the past, too, but doubts he ever will again. He can’t imagine any of the Democratic presidential candidates connecting with rural voters. He described Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as “socialists.”

“We have a lot of Christian people in Fulton County,” Bunch said. “The abortion thing just kills them. The abortion thing just kills the Democratic Party.”

A Penn State grad, Purnell worked in dairy farming until his late 30s, and also earned money building computers. Today, he does estimates for a local electric company and is getting a solar business off the ground. He has a hunch that he’s lost work over his politics. While his wife and children were Democrats before him, Purnell said his conversations with other family members often end when they say, “But Hillary...”

He’s helping out as the co-administrator of the Fulton County Democratic Committee’s Facebook page.

“It’s a small group,” Purnell said.

Fulton’s population of 14,590 makes it one of the state’s least-populated counties. It shares a border with a red county in Maryland to the south, and red counties over Pennsylvania mountain ridges to its east and west. According to the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, Fulton County is whiter and older than the state average, and the median family income, $61,826, is lower than the state average of $75,477.

Unlike many other rural counties, however, Fulton has seen its population grow. Fewer than 10,000 people lived there in 1930. The county’s unemployment rate, 4.3%, is the same as the state average, and its top employer, JLG Industries, is a steady one, making industrial lifts here for decades. Another top employer is state government.

Jack Hendricks, chair of the county’s Democratic Party, said he brought his politics to Fulton County when he moved here from Maryland decades ago. Hendricks, 82, is a Sanders supporter and believes the Vermont senator’s “Medicare for All” plan would resonate with rural voters.

Still, it’s Fulton County.

“The victories seem to be far away, but we do expect more people to be involved,” Hendricks said.

Purnell’s party switch makes for interesting, though not heated, conversation at Fulton Electric, where he works. Owner Travis Horton decorated the office with a mounted bull elk he shot in New Mexico, an assortment of pelts, and at least one sign espousing the Second Amendment.

“It’s nice to hear someone out who has a different opinion without going down a slippery slope and getting personal,” Horton said of Purnell.

Purnell’s chief concerns as a voter are the “commons" — the air, water, and soil. Rural America, he said, is just as food insecure as inner cities because of how food is marketed and sold. Health care is an extension of that, he said.

“We have really difficult issues to solve, and in this hyper-polarized environment, we’re not able to bring ideas to the table because people are being attacked,” he said. “The ideas themselves are ruled out because they come from the wrong political party.”

At H&G’s Bubbles & Baths Pet Grooming, owner Mary Kepner, 52, doesn’t share Purnell’s sentiments. She started crying when she spoke about her commitment to Trump. Kepner believes that the impeachment process has only hurt the left. She doesn’t think any of the Democratic candidates, particularly the women, stand a chance in rural America.

“I will never vote for a woman to be a president because our foreign policies and all those leaders over there don’t respect women," she said, “so how are they going respect a woman president for the United States?”