BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Tara Zrinski is running an insurgent political campaign from her kitchen table. A solar-energy consultant and state House candidate, Zrinski says she has democratic socialist “tendencies.” There’s a poster in her living room that declares: “I’m joining the clean energy revolution.”
She sounds like a Bernie Sanders voter. And the single mother of three does like Sanders, who emerged from his decisive win in the Nevada caucuses Saturday as the Democratic presidential front-runner. But something is keeping her from going all in.
“I don’t know if Bernie can win Pennsylvania,” Zrinski, who lives in Hanover Township, one of the more rural sections of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, said last week. “And that’s why I haven’t jumped.”
Zrinski, 44, has knocked on plenty of doors during her campaign, even meeting some Democrats who back President Donald Trump. About 90,000 registered Democrats live in Northampton County, one of three Pennsylvania counties that backed Barack Obama before flipping to Trump in 2016. After Trump’s razor-thin victory in Pennsylvania helped elevate him to the White House, and with the state expected to play a critical role again in 2020, those swing counties are being closely watched.
But while the candidates debate the viability of Medicare for All and the appropriateness of Mike Bloomberg advertising his way to the top tier, the most common refrain for Democrats in the purple Lehigh Valley is: “Any blue will do.” Zrinski is among a class of Democratic women in Northampton who are racked with anxiety that Trump will win again. That anxiety seems to overwhelm any preferences about which candidate should ultimately take him on.
“I think, another four years of him,” she said, "and I can’t imagine what the United States will be like.”
With the April 28 Pennsylvania primary still two months away, some organizers in Northampton County are on edge about November, and spending their waking hours gaming out how different candidates might appeal to their neighbors.
“Beating Trump is still the motivator," said Cathy Ford, 58, of Bethlehem. “It’s like, ‘I like this basketball team, but I really think that other basketball team is so much better,’ so instead of going with my basketball team, I’m going to go with the second-ring basketball team."
Trump won Pennsylvania by just 44,000 votes, or less than 1%, meaning even slight shifts could swing the election. A poll conducted before Sanders’ win in Nevada suggests he’s narrowly leading the primary field in Pennsylvania, just a few points ahead of Joe Biden and Bloomberg. The University of Wisconsin survey also showed Trump virtually tied in Pennsylvania with all the Democratic candidates.
Both Democrats and Republicans see Northampton County as an opportunity. But compared with places in Pennsylvania that also flipped to Trump, the Lehigh Valley skews higher in income and education levels, demographics that align more with Democrats. Women are a key voting bloc, and were pivotal for U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, who in 2018 won an open House seat in a district that includes Northampton.
Democratic women involved with political organizing aren’t concerned about a woman’s ability to win. But they did learn that Wild’s more moderate message plays well, making them concerned that Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, is too far left for the Lehigh Valley.
Others worry he could struggle with female voters. Heather Lipkin, of Salisbury Township in neighboring Lehigh County, supported Kamala Harris before she dropped out of the race in December. Lipkin now plans to vote for Amy Klobuchar. She called Sanders “an ineffective senator,” “a misogynist," and “the Trump of the left.”
“Every time he has an interview with a woman, he puts his hand in her face. That’s a deal-breaker for me," said Lipkin, 46. But she said she’d still vote for him in November: “I would vote for a ham sandwich against Trump."
Democrats still hold a registration advantage of about 22,000 voters in Northampton County. But since 2016, the county has lost about 3,000 registered Democrats and gained about 1,000 Republicans. State records show that among the county’s 210,000 registered voters, about 2,500 Democrats switched to Republican between 2017 and 2019, while only about 1,600 switched the other way. Trump carried the county by about 5,400 votes in 2016.
Those trends have Democrats nervous, especially as the nominating contest looks to be a months-long slog for delegates. Becky Wamsley, chair of the Bethlehem City Democratic Committee, said she plans to vote for Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but has encountered plenty of Democrats she fears won’t show up in November at all.
Wamsley, 41, is managing a state House campaign and has spent weeks knocking on doors gathering signatures to get her candidate on the ballot. She said there seem to be two camps of voters: those who are polarized, and those who don’t want to be bothered with politics.
Kate Wilgruber, vice chair of the Bethlehem party, plans to vote for Warren. She said she also encounters Democrats who are just tired of it all.
“It’s just so much all the time," said Wilgruber, 32. “There’s just a deluge of horror every day in the news. So people just — they cannot. They’re just done. They can’t pay attention anymore.”
Even political junkies like Paige Van Wirt, a physician and a Democratic member of Bethlehem City Council who ran for office for the first time after Trump’s election, find themselves fatigued. Van Wirt, 52, used to listen to MSNBC every day on satellite radio, but became overwhelmed by the constant outrage. So she switched to NPR. When her anger at the news didn’t subside, she switched to the BBC.
These days, she just sticks to music.
And while she hasn’t decided whom she’s going to vote for, she said she’s leaning toward Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg, though she prefers Sanders’ and Warren’s economic messages.
“I want someone who, in their moderate views, is more likely to, once they get elected, to bring the country back together,” she said, “and not alienate people and make the fracture worse.”
Other women in the Lehigh Valley support Sanders’ vision for the country, but can’t bring themselves to vote for him in the primary. Johanna Brams, a 70-year-old retired professor who lives in Bethlehem, backed Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. But she’s since been turned off by “Bernie bros," the name sometimes ascribed to his fervent online base. She’d love to see a woman in the Oval Office, and plans to vote for Klobuchar.
But Brams also said that come November, she’ll work to elect whomever the party nominates. The thought of Trump winning reelection is too much to bear, she said: “It keeps me awake at night.”