SCRANTON — With Joe Biden riding high after a commanding performance in the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries, President Donald Trump is coming here to offer some counter-programming in a state that helped deliver him the White House four years ago.
Trump’s appearance in Biden’s hometown of Scranton on Thursday night, for a Fox News town hall meeting, will serve as a reminder of just how important Pennsylvania is in November. And it may underscore an uncomfortable truth for his would-be rivals: It’s not always easy being a Democrat in Northeastern Pennsylvania these days.
Last year, an independent candidate was elected mayor of Scranton, in Lackawanna County, after her Democratic predecessor was hauled to prison for corruption. Republicans took control of the County Council in neighboring Luzerne County. A longtime Democratic state senator left the party, citing discomfort with “partisan purists.” And the House seat held by a local Democratic congressman is seen as a top target for Republicans in November.
“They’re losing elections, they’re losing voters.... In counties like mine where they have us outnumbered pretty dramatically, we’re coming closer than we have in a very long time,” said Lance Stange, chairman of the Lackawanna County GOP.
Democrats were caught off guard when many white working-class voters supported Trump in 2016.
Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Luzerne County by 26,000 votes, one of three counties in the state that swung his way after backing Barack Obama. Trump lost Lackawanna County, where Scranton is the county seat, but significantly outperformed previous GOP presidential nominees there.
And while Democrats still outnumber Republicans, party registration figures since Trump’s election have shifted almost six percentage points in the GOP’s favor.
Republicans have also been gaining ground in Luzerne County, to the south. Exhibit A is State Sen. John Yudichak, who announced in November that he would leave the Democratic Party and caucus with the Republicans in Harrisburg. The son of a coal miner whom Yudichak described as a New Deal Democrat, Yudichak said the party had moved away from those values.
“More and more I started to see kind of the rise of what I see the radical left become more and more prominent in the national conversation — and that kind of seeped into the state Democratic Party,” Yudichak said earlier this year. “And more and more I saw that I wasn’t going to be able to be an effective voice for my constituency.”
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, a seven-term Democrat from Wilkes-Barre, took a different view. It’s not hard to be a Democrat in Northeastern Pennsylvania, he said, because the party still stands for workers, collective bargaining, and affordable health care.
“Just because I have an extremist on the left doesn’t mean I lose my ability of being a Democrat, my beliefs,” Pashinski, also the son of a miner, said Wednesday in his district office, where he keeps a photo of himself and Biden on the wall. A sign on the door says, “Keep it made in America.”
“I find some of the young legislators with the extreme left energetic, very bright, and they have dreams," Pashinski said. “Without dreams, without moving the bar, you become stagnant and stale. But the question is, how fast and how far is practical?”
Democratic strategists said the landscape won’t get better for them in national elections any time soon. The party still does well in cities like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, but broader Northeastern Pennsylvania “is a lost proposition” for the Democrats in 2020, one Pennsylvania Democratic strategist said.
Local Democrats did have something to celebrate Wednesday: Biden’s Super Tuesday romp, just a week after many had counted him out.
“When it comes to people in Scranton, they weren’t worried about the election as much as they were worried about him," Evie Rafalko McNulty, the Lackawanna County recorder of deeds and a Democratic superdelegate, said Wednesday in her office here.
And now? "They're psyched."
“I think the people are realizing — nothing against Sen. Sanders — the people are realizing that Joe Biden is our only hope of changing the resident at the White House," McNulty said.
Trump, who has been showing up in states before Democrats vote there, would like to cut short the fun.
“We like to troll,” Trump said at a rally in North Carolina on Monday, a day before the state’s primary.
Thursday’s meeting is to be held at the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple.
Jack McGovern, 67, stopped his car across the street on Wednesday to take a picture of the Fox News truck outside. He sent it to his daughter, a doctor in Florida who also supports Trump. “I feel he has done what he said he was going to do more so than any other recent president,” said McGovern, who had a “Keep America Great” bumper sticker on his car.
“I truly believe he has the best interests of the country at heart," McGovern said. I know he’s going to win reelection, hands down.”
And what does he think of the hometown favorite? “Joe Biden comes here. He goes down to Green Ridge every time there’s an election,” McGovern said. “But he has yet to do anything for the city of Scranton.”
Stanley Grand, 75, described Trump as a “moral abomination.”
“I have no use for the gentleman,” he said of the president while taking an afternoon walk. Grand, a retired museum director and art history professor, said his wife followed politics more closely. “She likes Biden,” he said. “Anyone is fine with me.”
McNulty, the superdelegate, said Democrats have a few surprises planned for Trump, including a billboard near the expressway. The message? “It’s Biden Country.”