NAZARETH, Pa. — Steve Lynch says his campaign for a low-level elected office in Pennsylvania is about protecting his neighbors’ constitutional freedoms. The Republican has railed against the results of the 2020 election and what’s taught in schools and pledged to never mandate masks or vaccines.
Most of those issues would be above his pay grade if he becomes Northampton County executive. But that doesn’t stop Lynch from deploying campaign rhetoric more often seen in races for Congress or governor.
“People are realizing we cannot trust the federal government,” he said in an interview. “We gotta start creating ... freedom in our local areas.”
In 2021, more than ever, even the the most local politics are national.
Local elections next week, like the Northampton race and another county executive contest in Erie, will offer clues about the strength of both parties — and the kind of candidates who can attract voters in the most politically competitive parts of Pennsylvania ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
Northampton, in the Lehigh Valley, and Erie, in northwestern Pennsylvania, are the only two counties in the state that voted twice for Barack Obama before flipping to Donald Trump in 2016 and then back to Joe Biden in 2020.
In Erie, 37-year-old Tyler Titus beat out a more moderate slate of candidates in the primary and could become the first openly transgender person in the nation to lead a county. Titus’ campaign has framed the Republican, Brenton Davis, as a promoter of disinformation about vaccines and the election, by highlighting past social media posts.
“The old adage that all politics is local, we all realize now that’s no longer the case,” said Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from the Lehigh Valley. “These local races are much more nationalized than they’ve ever been in my lifetime. Local issues still will matter in a local race, but national mood matters more.”
The county executive, a position that only exists in a handful of Pennsylvania counties, oversees the local government, along with a county council. Their constitution is the county’s home rule charter. Duties include overseeing a multi-million dollar budget (in Northampton that was about $470 million in 2021, in Erie it’s about $500 million), operation of elections, and oversight of health and human services. It’s not an inconsequential post, but it’s not one where national issues are usually so front and center.
But national issues drive turnout, GOP strategist Mike Barley said. “This is typically the lowest turnout of all the elections ... but I have a feeling pro-Trump aligned Republican voters are coming and it probably has nothing ... to do with the county executive race and more to do with Washington.”
Democrats are having to contend with an increasingly unpopular President Biden, whose approval ratings fell in Pennsylvania by almost 10 percentage points since August, an October Franklin & Marshall poll found. And history is not on their side. The party that gains control of the White House has traditionally not done well in the municipal elections that follow.
Northampton is home to small cities like Bethlehem and Easton as well as more rural places like Nazareth, and political registration is split almost equally between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats there admit they’re nervous about Lynch, a political outsider who has never run for office and is significantly underfunded.
“In a normal year, in normal times, Steve Lynch would be practically laughed off the ballot,” said Northampton Democratic chair Matt Munsey. “But we have to take him seriously. It almost doesn’t even necessarily matter who the candidates are or how far out of the mainstream ... we have to assume that such a candidate can actually win.”
Munsey worries that in this national moment, the GOP is more motivated. Republicans have been galvanized by school board races and the baseless crusade that the results of the 2020 election were inaccurate.
“My biggest concern is Democrats who aren’t feeding off all that will feel like, ‘you know, we did our job last year ... we don’t need to worry about it,’ ” Munsey said.
The incumbent, Lamont McClure, knows political observers’ eyes are on what happens here but he thinks Lynch’s more extreme views will mobilize Democrats. He’s touted a grant program to help small businesses survive the pandemic and announced in October that he wanted to cut taxes in the county. But a prime tactic has been shining the spotlight on Lynch, who he’s called a “domestic terrorist.” McClure has spent $257,000 in the final weeks of the campaign on ads and TV. A chunk of his war chest came from labor union PACs.
Lynch raised $42,000 but has spent only $14,000 since September.
“My hope is what we see here is that calm, responsible, reasonable leadership can still be in vogue,” McClure said. “I think that it is not entirely true that the fringes of either party have completely captured the parties. I think you can walk a middle path and still win elections.”
Democratic votes tend to be stable in Northampton, which means Republican turnout could be the key decider.
At Lynch’s rally on Monday, a crowd of about 75 people wore Trump hats and T-shirts that said, “We the People are Pissed off.” Several said they don’t typically vote in local elections.
“You know, 2020 was a wake-up call that we have to start at the bottom. And we have to restructure the entire government from the ground up,” said Lori Phillips, 57, of Danielsville. “I’m getting more awakened by what is going on within Northampton County. I just don’t like that they’re trying to take our freedoms away. What they’re trying to do at the schools and race theory, it’s just ridiculous.”
One supporter wore a “1 of the 20″ shirt, a reference to Lynch’s comment at a Harrisburg rally that fellow Republicans get “20 strong men” to remove school board members voting for mask mandates. The video went viral. Lynch has since said he was trying to defend parents who were being bullied and denied threatening school board members.
John Brown, the last Republican to hold the county executive seat, now running for county council this year, said Lynch, who lives in the Northampton Area School District, may have a “different style,” but he’s appealing to parents frustrated about school issues.
“That’s motivating the 25- to 45-year-olds, who typically stay home,” Brown said.
And in a rare departure from national issues, Lynch on Monday accused McClure of failures related to the county hospital, Gracedale, which is understaffed. Lynch has repeatedly called McClure corrupt and accused him of electioneering and refusing to cooperate with ICE.
“Essentially McClure is making Northampton County a sanctuary county for illegal aliens, crime, MS-13 gang members, child trafficking,” Lynch told the crowd. “He wants a sanctuary for these things. I want a sanctuary for Northampton County’s constituents’ constitutional rights.”
McClure said hiring has been difficult at the nursing home and called Lynch’s other accusations “a witches’ brew of misinformation, half-truths, and lies.”
Across the state in another swing county, Erie Democrat Titus has similarly tried to discredit the Republican candidate for county executive by casting Davis as a fringe opponent who has flip-flopped on issues for political gain.
The open seat for county executive has been held by a Democrat since the 1970s but it’s rarely been won by more than about 400 votes.
An ad paid for by Titus’ campaign shows photos of the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington alongside social media posts Davis made about staying “well armed,” ahead of the 2020 election.
The ad includes an audio clip of Davis saying he’d never get vaccinated. Davis later said he did get the vaccine and showed the local newspaper the copy of a vaccination card.
Davis, a veteran and construction contractor who ran for the seat four years ago, did not respond to requests for an interview. He said in a recent debate his opinion on the vaccine has evolved. He’s running on his business acumen and has criticized Titus for a 2015 bankruptcy filing.
Verel Salmon, chairman of Erie’s GOP, said he’s tired of Democrats radicalizing their Republican opponents. He doesn’t think the attacks on Davis, who did not attend the Jan. 6 rally, will stick.
“It’s absolutely irrelevant to associate that with a serious bread-and-butter race,” Salmon said. “This race is about jobs, population declining. Trump is just not part of this.”
And yet, politically, part of Davis’ challenge has been to appeal both to the Trump base and to more moderate Republicans in order to turn out enough voters to win.
“This represents the Trump conundrum,” said Dent. “Candidates that most closely identify with Trump have advantages in primaries but in a swing county like Northampton or Erie, that connection can prove fatal in a general election.”
The electorate in municipal races also tends to sway older and includes more Democrats and moderate Republicans, said Erie County Democratic county chairman Jim Wertz.
“I think what remains to be seen is whether or not that Trump base rallies around people who aren’t Donald Trump,” Wertz said.
The race has seen an influx of cash for a countywide campaign as has the bid for sheriff. Titus spent $372,434 as of last month’s filing, with $86,962 on hand, and Davis spent $307,495, with $15,734 on hand. Davis has criticized Titus for getting more than half of that money from out-of-state donors.
Whether Titus can prevail is also something Democrats are watching ahead of the 2022 primaries for the historic precedent it would set.
Titus’ campaign hasn’t made gender a big part of its message, instead focusing on expanding health and human services. Davis hasn’t focused on gender either. But Titus recognizes the significant crack a victory could put in the often-held notion that a nontraditional candidate can’t win in swing areas.
“We’re not sitting here in Brooklyn or Austin or Portland,” said Titus’ campaign manager Josh Rosenbaum. “We’re in a place that’s so often described as the bellwether of the country.”