EXETER, Pa. — Vice President Mike Pence visited a pivotal region of Pennsylvania on Tuesday as the presidential campaign shifted from the parties’ national conventions to a hard-driving new tempo, with a heavy emphasis on the Keystone State.
Pence spoke in Northeast Pennsylvania at Kuharchik Construction in Luzerne County — a county that in 2016 delivered one of Trump’s most significant victories, both politically and symbolically.
Luzerne, with a large white working-class population that had historically supported Democrats due to their labor union ties, swung sharply to Donald Trump — a 32,000-vote shift. Trump won the state by about 44,000 votes, less than 1% of the total.
It was the largest swing of any Pennsylvania county, and was emblematic of a wider realignment that repeated itself across many small-city and post-industrial regions — delivering Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the White House to Trump.
“We’re not too far from our opponents’ boyhood home, but it’s Trump country now,” Pence said in Exeter, a short drive from Scranton.
Both parties see the competition for such counties, and voters, in places like Northeast and Southwest Pennsylvania as critical to the election results. Even a small shift toward Biden, or a modestly larger turnout for Trump, could be decisive.
Pence’s visit to Pennsylvania came after Monday stops by Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who went to Pittsburgh to speak about social unrest and rioting, and Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, who campaigned in Bucks County. Trump himself is scheduled to go to Latrobe, in Southwest Pennsylvania, on Thursday.
The vice president touted the country’s economic gains, before the coronavirus pandemic struck, and said the country needs Trump to lead a revival.
“As our economy is beginning to stand back up, as we’re putting millions of Americans back to work, you need to ask yourself, who do you trust to rebuild this economy?” Pence asked. “A career politician who presided over the slowest recovery since the Great Depression? Or a proven leader who created the greatest economy in the world?”
He spoke outside at an electrical contractor’s facility, standing before a huge American flag held up by two construction cranes and a banner reading “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!”
Despite Biden vowing he would not ban fracking, Pence also told the crowd to believe that the Democrat would do so, “whatever you may hear.” In fact, Biden has said he would ban new fracking permits on public land, but not stop existing fracking or projects on private property.
Hundreds of Trump supporters lined up across the two-lane highway from the event, many of them arriving hours before Pence spoke. Valerie Anne Ferlauto, 66, drove about an hour from Pike County to get a glimpse of the vice president.
“He has respect not just for college-educated people, but people who keep America growing,” like plumbers and other blue collar workers, Ferlauto said of Trump. She called the coronavirus a “made-up disease.”
A smaller contingent of Democrats showed up with Biden signs. “We are standing with the real workers of Pennsylvania” who have “suffered hardship” under Trump, said Mary Ann Velez, cofounder of United NEPA Alliance, an advocacy group.
Pence spoke shortly after Trump appeared in Kenosha, Wis., the city that has become one of the centers of the social upheaval rippling across the country. Protesters there have marched to express their outrage at the police shooting a Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back, while rioters have destroyed property and right-wing militiamen have joined the fray. One 17-year-old Trump supporter, Kyle Rittenhouse, is now accused of shooting and killing two protesters. His attorney has said Rittenhouse acted in self defense.
“President Donald Trump is in Kenosha today to make it clear that we stand for law and order in every city in every town for every American,” Pence said.
As violence in the streets of some cities has escalated, with clashes between protesters and right-wing groups, the debate over protests, and the destruction that has accompanied some of them, has in recent days overshadowed even the pandemic and Trump’s pledges of economic revival.
Pence, discussing the unrest, spoke almost entirely about rioting, looting and violence, and supporting police, saying little about concerns over racism and police conduct that the protesters have raised. He did not mention Blake by name.
A day earlier, Biden criticized the looting and rioting around some protests, while blasting Trump as a “toxin” who has encouraged violence and failed to chastise far-right groups who support the president. Pence hit back Tuesday, questioning why Biden had not spoken up more frequently. (Biden actually criticized looting as early as June.)
Democrats assailed Trump’s record on the economy and the coronavirus before Pence’s speech.
“The least that we should have in a time like this, in a time of real crisis, is to have a president who would have not just care and concern about the virus and the job crisis, but would actually have a plan for both,” said Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Lackawanna County, next door to Luzerne. “The Trump-Pence administration has neither. There’s no jobs plan, and there’s no plan for the virus.”
Before the pandemic, Pennsylvania saw slow but steady job growth under Trump, continuing a trajectory he inherited from President Barack Obama — who won Luzerne County in 2012. The state added about 193,000 jobs from the month Trump took office to February 2020, about a 3% increase, according to federal data, before that number plummeted as the virus took hold. The Northeast region Pence was visiting Tuesday saw slower growth even before the pandemic — about 1.1%.
Overall, after the steep drop in February and more recent summer rebound, Pennsylvania lost 390,500 jobs compared with when Trump took office, including 32,000 in the region Pence visited.
Casey said the grim economic statistics show that Trump failed to stem the pandemic and ease the health and economic effects. Statewide unemployment was 13.7%, according to the most recent data, he said, but even higher in those Northeast Pennsylvania counties that voted so heavily for Trump. It was 16.1% in Luzerne County and 14.5% in Lackawanna in July.
“We haven’t seen numbers like that in my lifetime in Pennsylvania,” Casey said.
Pence pointed to recent figures that have shown some jobs returning after the historic lows earlier in the pandemic.