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Democrats are looking for a rebound in Erie, a symbol of Trump’s Rust Belt appeal

Erie County, once a manufacturing powerhouse that has seen a steep loss of industrial jobs, became a symbol of Trump’s surprise victory and blue collar appeal in 2016.

Across from the Erie International Airport, one voter waves a flag in support of President Donald Trump, while another raises one in support of Democratic nominee Joe Biden, during a rally held Tuesday by Trump.
Across from the Erie International Airport, one voter waves a flag in support of President Donald Trump, while another raises one in support of Democratic nominee Joe Biden, during a rally held Tuesday by Trump.Read moreChristopher Millette / AP

ERIE, Pa. — The rural portions of Erie County look a lot like other similar areas in Western Pennsylvania these days: roads and homes are loaded with Trump signs.

But there’s something different here in the Northwest corner of the state: A significant number of Joe Biden signs stand in response, on lawns, at intersections, on barns, and even in a small office in Union City — a rural town where no one can ever remember seeing a Democratic presence before.

“Farmers for Biden" and “Christians Against Trump” signs hang on the building.

Signs, political professionals point out, don’t vote. But both Republicans and Democrats here say they do indicate what they’ve seen for months: Democrats are now much more active and visible in one of the places that stunned the party in 2016, and helped seal Donald Trump’s victory.

Of the areas in Pennsylvania that swung to Trump in 2016, Erie is one of the few that has shown signs of a potential Democratic rebound.

“In 2016, we caught the Democrats off-guard,” said David Lawrence, who manages the GOP’s county headquarters. Enthusiasm for the president is still through the roof, maybe higher than before, he said. But in such a closely contested county, “I could see where the Democrats could win Erie County back. It wouldn’t be impossible.”

The intensity for Trump is “at least what it was last time,” said Mark Holman, a longtime aide to former Gov. Tom Ridge, an Erie native and Republican who supports Biden.

But, Holman added, “I think Biden can win Erie County.” If so, “that’s a sign that he’s winning Pennsylvania.”

Both campaigns have signaled the county’s importance: Biden visited Oct. 10 and Trump held a rally there Tuesday night.

Erie, once a manufacturing powerhouse that has seen a steep loss of industrial jobs, became a symbol of Trump’s surprise victory and blue collar appeal in 2016. Despite its Democratic, labor union roots, Erie County saw a 21,000-vote swing to Trump compared to the previous election, a huge factor in a state decided by just 44,000 votes.

Political analysts and campaign operatives have been watching Erie ever since to see if Trump can retain his hold. If he slips here, the thinking goes, it could be a sign of erosion with his base of white, working class voters across key Midwestern swing states.

It might be “Pennsylvania’s electoral ground zero,” wrote David Wasserman, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Wedged along Lake Erie between Cleveland and Buffalo, the county is a microcosm of the industrial Midwest. It has a core city, Erie (locals just call it “the city”), politically balanced suburbs, and conservative rural areas (referred to as “the county”) with corn fields, dairy farms, and sprawling vineyards used for Welch’s grape juice and Rust Belt wineries.

“Its kind of earned its reputation as Middle America,” Holman said.

Its political symbolism is such that locals describe being interviewed by journalists from Sweden, Brazil and New Zealand.

» READ MORE: Trump didn’t bring back coal in Pa. But that doesn’t mean miners are backing Biden.

Republicans say Trump’s support remains strong.

“He was able to be able to really talk to the people and resonate,” said Republican Brian Shank, who twice voted for Barack Obama but switched to Trump and last year won a county council seat previously held by Democrats.

Verel Salmon, the county GOP chairman, said giving out Trump paraphernalia in exchange for campaign donations has helped make up for the coronavirus-related cancellation of the party’s annual fund-raising dinner.

The hats and signs go “at a phenomenal rate,” Salmon said. People even come from New York and Ohio.

But Democrats made inroads in 2018, when Gov. Tom Wolf, Sen. Bob Casey, and U.S. House candidate Ron DiNicola racked up big margins in Erie County (though DiNicola lost to Rep. Mike Kelly because of GOP strength in the rest of the district).

This year, Democrats have made a concerted effort to compete, politically and visually, and not just in the city. They have also opened several rural offices, including in 3,000-person Union City.

The presence signals to Democrats that they’re not alone, even in deeply conservative areas, said Jim Wertz, the county’s Democratic chairman. And it gives supporters a place where they can volunteer close to their own communities.

“If people are out there only hearing from their Republican neighbors and they’re only hearing Republican narratives on television, then who is there to have that Democratic story?" Wertz said.

» READ MORE: Trump held his own in Bucks County in 2016. But it might be slipping away in 2020.

At the Union City office, volunteers say they’ve seen steady traffic.

“We’ve had people come in here in their 80′s and they’ve registered, and they’ve never voted,” said Wayne Oaks, 63.

Dan Gourley, a farmer who runs the Democratic office, said he and others farmers have been hammered by Trump’s trade war, which drove down the prices of corn and other commodities.

Two doors down, a group of Trump supporters opened their own office in response, independent of the county party or presidential campaign. A Trump cardboard cutout stood out front with a sign that said “Honk for Trump.”

There were steady blasts of car and truck horns.

In North East, a small town at the end of Erie’s wine country, Julie Cullen represents the shift Democrats are hoping for. A Republican, she didn’t vote in 2016, but is now eager to support Biden.

“He’ll be a much more responsible, sane leader,” with “a responsible approach to science and listening to doctors and masks,” said Cullen, 47.

Nearby, at Leaf Lover’s Tobacconist, a cigar shop, a sign in the window read “Socialism Stinks. Cigars Don’t.”

“I don’t know anyone who likes every word that come out of his mouth. I certainly don’t, and I’m a staunch conservative,” owner Chris Kelly, a former local GOP leader, said of Trump. “But you know where he stands, he’s going to say it the way he’s going to say it, there’s no B.S. about it.”

Lighting up a cigar shortly before noon on a Saturday this month, Kelly said he supports tax cuts. He allowed that some regulation makes sense — he appreciated that Lake Erie is much cleaner now — but mostly thought it went too far and credited Trump with cutting red tape.

“If you look at agrarian areas, most people, just: ‘Let me live my frickin’ life,'" said Kelly, 55.

In one of the store’s fat leather couches, Bradley Beck, 27, was considering supporting the Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen, but would vote for Trump if Jorgensen is a lost cause. Trump is “more honest,” he said, while Biden has “played the game too long and hasn’t done enough.”

At a Democratic rally later that afternoon in the city of Erie, Ron Oliver, a machine operator, said many of his fellow union members supported Trump, thinking he was a businessman who would bring back jobs.

“We wanted someone with an iron heart to get things done," said Oliver, 62, describing his colleagues' thinking. “We was fooled.”