David Urban remembers when, despite the polling, he began to believe that Donald Trump would win Pennsylvania. It happened at a rally Oct. 10 inside the Ambridge High School gymnasium in Western Pennsylvania when he saw the reception the candidate received from Urban's longtime neighbor Virginia Lonski.
"She told Mr. Trump that she had been a Democrat her entire life, 81 years, and this was the first election that she was voting for a Republican for president," Urban recalled.
The packed event was a homecoming of sorts for the veteran Pennsylvania political operative who was raised nearby. His parents were there, so too was another neighbor, Ken Gregory, whom Urban remembers as the first on his cul-de-sac to put up a Trump sign in primary season.
"As soon as everyone else in the neighborhood knew I'd signed on with Trump, they all wanted signs," Urban said.
The support Trump was garnering in this largely Democratic community of former steelworkers, retired USAirways employees, and schoolteachers suggested to Urban that this was an election unlike any other in which he'd been involved in a career that included working for Sens. Arlen Specter, Rick Santorum, and Pat Toomey.
"I learned at the hand of the master, my former boss was U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who was a great guy and just a ferocious campaigner and a guy who refused to ever give up," Urban said.
At about midnight on election night, Urban received the numerical confirmation of what he'd seen in Lonski's vote.
"I'm not sure exactly what time it was, but you get to that point of no return, where you're 98 percent, 98.2 percent, 98.5 percent [of the returns counted], and you're up by 70,000, 80,000, 100,000 votes," he said. "And in the counties that are outstanding there are just not enough people that they're going to turn the tide.
"It's a pretty overwhelming feeling. . . . You're kind of pinching yourself. Pennsylvania hadn't gone for a Republican president since 1988. I don't want to say it's the great white whale of Republican politics, but it's been out there for a while."
Just before 3 a.m., Trump took the stage and accepted victory. Two hours later, Urban was driving from Harrisburg to Washington in need of a shower and fresh clothes - but not sleep. Today, he is in the running for a senior position in the Trump administration, maybe chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Urban, 52, is a 1986 graduate of West Point. He was a captain in the 101st Airborne Division, deployed during Desert Shield/Storm, and received a Bronze Star for meritorious achievement. His recent success appears not to have gone to his head.
"Don't say I was the Pennsylvania campaign manager," he cautioned me. "I just provide guidance. I've been on the periphery of many campaigns." Initially he supported Santorum's 2016 bid.
"David jumped on board the Trump train because he saw Trump as an agent of change," Santorum said. "He is one of the few in that organization that knows all the players, policies, and tactics to help deliver for working Americans."
All who know him appreciate his ability to maintain his focus to finish a complex job. Shanin Specter recalls his late father's fondness for Urban.
"My father invented the practice of statewide candidates traveling to each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties," said Shanin Specter. "He felt it was important to show he cared about everyone in every county and that requires going there. While it was impractical for Donald Trump to get to every county, Dave Urban put my father's principal to work by organizing events across the state that drew people from each county, while Secretary Clinton concentrated on the urban centers. That was the difference in the election in Pennsylvania."
Urban responds that Trump, like Specter, was a pleasure to work for.
"Every time he came to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, he wanted to know when he was coming back next," Urban said. "He was very granular in his knowledge of the commonwealth, wanted to know why we were campaigning in a certain location that week, and where we would be headed the next week, a very energetic, knowledgeable man, and I expect him to be a great president."
Urban last saw Trump the night before the election, at a rally in Scranton that drew a capacity crowd of 4,500.
"We chatted, and I told him I wouldn't make it to New York for election night, that I'd be in Pennsylvania," Urban said. "And we shook hands and I thanked him for the opportunity and he thanked me for my efforts. He said, 'Good, goin', and that was it. We parted ways, he got in the car and headed off, and I headed back to Philadelphia."
Urban will get to New York City in three weeks, joining Pennsylvania's political elites at the 118th gathering of the Pennsylvania Society. For the last decade, Urban has cohosted a party at the Waldorf Astoria with Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive.
"I think he is a good person who is about getting the job done," said Ceisler. "He is very honest and candid. David understood the problems with Trump when he was asked to join the campaign before the convention. He's not really an ideologue . . . and, in fact, I do not know if I have ever had an ideological discussion with him in all the years I have known him.
"And as someone with a son in Afghanistan, I would hope someone with David's experience is in Trump's ear on national security and what it is like to send our children into harm's way. If David Urban is given the opportunity to be in a position of influence, that will be better for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, and I will sleep a little better at night."