Raberta Hans, a 50-year-old teacher from Carbon County in Northeastern Pennsylvania, says she wants to make a stand for election integrity: “It’s too dangerous to not go back and count every ballot.”
Jackie Kulback, the local GOP chair in Cambria County, is looking forward to what “may be our last chance to get together as a group to show the president how much we support him.”
And Ben Philips, a 50-year-old computer programmer from Bloomsburg, is eager to see what President Donald Trump will do next: “It seems like he called us there for a reason, I think something big’s about to go down that no one’s talking about yet. I think he has an ace up his sleeve.”
They’re among the busloads of Pennsylvania Trump supporters heading to Washington on Wednesday as the nation’s capital braces for potentially tens of thousands of people to march in the streets during a chaotic day in Congress. Under normal circumstances, it would be a quiet day in Washington, as Congress convenes to count the Electoral College votes — usually a formality.
But Trump and his allies have transformed this perfunctory gathering into a national spectacle, as the president continues his push to overturn his loss to President-elect Joe Biden. An unprecedented number of congressional Republicans have said they will object to the results in Pennsylvania and other swing states Biden won — despite Biden’s decisive 306-232 Electoral College victory and a popular-vote margin of seven million. Elections officials and dozens of state and federal courts across the country have rejected the Trump campaign’s lawsuits, and there is no evidence to support Trump’s claims of widespread fraud.
In Harrisburg on Tuesday, a smaller group of protesters held a “Hear Us Roar” rally on the steps of the state capitol building.
Democrats and even some Republicans, including Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, have called the sure-to-fail gambit an attack on democratic self-governance by attempting to overrule the will of the people and hand Trump a second term.
Trump has encouraged supporters to show up to “Stop the Steal.” Right-wing extremist groups like the Proud Boys are expected to join the protests — the group’s leader was arrested Monday in Washington on property-destruction and weapons charges — prompting fears among local authorities that there could be violence. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has activated hundreds of National Guard troops to help monitor protests.
In interviews, Trump supporters said they wanted to show support for the president and were frustrated by what they saw as an unfair election. Some stopped short of saying they believed the election was stolen, but expressed concern over how it was run. Many fervent Trump backers said they considered their trip a pilgrimage, an opportunity to publicly object to the election and show pride in a president who in many cases brought them into politics — and whom they desperately want to stay in office.
“You’re trying to right a wrong, is what you’re trying to do. The people going down to D.C., everyone believes Trump won, and not only did he win, he won in a landslide,” said Kevin Fischer, a retired mill worker from Yardley.
“We feel like for the first time in the history of my lifetime I’ve got a president who actually cares about what the American people think and feel,” he said.
There is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud in Pennsylvania’s presidential election. Trump’s campaign itself hasn’t presented any such evidence in its numerous legal challenges contesting the result. Rather, its legal efforts have been aimed at disqualifying votes that all evidence shows were legitimately cast under rules they disagree with. The postelection controversy has been stirred almost entirely by unfounded claims of fraud.
But Fischer thinks it is suspicious that Trump’s election night lead melted away as mail ballots were counted. (Mail ballots, which overwhelmingly favored Biden, were counted later than in-person votes, because under state law counties weren’t authorized to start processing them until Election Day.) He rejects the mainstream media as covering up for Democrats and refers to posts on far-right websites like Project Veritas.
Philips, the programmer from Bloomsburg, organized a 55-seat charter van stopping in Harrisburg and York en route to Washington. He started a pro-Trump website, Trumparoo (named for a stuffed kangaroo he sells that looks like the president).
There was a time when he thought a fighting kangaroo would be a fun mascot for the election.
“But people aren’t really in the stuffed-animal spirit anymore,” Philips said. Philips had voted only once in a presidential election before Trump. He now feels as if he has a family of Trump supporters that extends nationwide.
“We’ll just find other ways to fight,” Philips said. “Get other people elected, try to help more patriotic Republicans get elected as opposed to the Mitch McConnells and the Chris Christies. ... It seems like there’s going to be a whole other movement that will overtake the Republican Party as being the Trump party.”
That GOP divide will also be on display Wednesday as eight of Pennsylvania’s nine Republican House members have said they will object to the state’s electors, effectively moving to invalidate millions of votes.
Val Biancaniello, a respiratory therapist from Delaware County who plans to rally in Washington, said she’s mainly focused on pushing state lawmakers to change election rules. Republican leaders in Harrisburg have said election reform will be a priority this year.
But on Jan. 20, when Biden is inaugurated, Biancaniello said, she’ll consider him her president. “I will hardly agree with his policies for certain, but if he can strive for a more prosperous and peaceful America, that’s the hope,” she said.
Kulback, the GOP chair from Cambria County in Southwestern Pennsylvania, said she’d be making the trip with about 100 people on two buses. Trump supporters in nearby Bedford, Somerset, and Blair Counties have also chartered two buses a piece, she said. “It was ridiculous, the assaults that the president went through since 2016,” Kulback said. “And I think what we’re seeing now is just a lot of pent-up frustration because of that.”
She said that going forward, Republican voters are clamoring for elected officials to tighten voting laws. “I hope all of our elected officials look at everything that went wrong with this election, and really step up to the plate to fix it,” Kulback said. “And that means, buttoning down the mail-in ballots, validating who’s voting.”
Democrats are confident there’s little chance of Wednesday changing anything, though they are perturbed by the historic challenge to a free and fair election.
“Electoral votes will be received, there will be some very unfortunate speeches made, and it will be another step toward us moving this country back to sanity,” said State Sen. Sharif Street, who is vice chair of the state Democratic Party.
But some Trump voters are holding out hope — and watching Vice President Mike Pence, who as president of the Senate presides over the joint session of Congress. The Constitution prescribes him a ceremonial role of counting the Electoral College votes, despite Trump’s false claim Tuesday that Pence has the power to reject electors.
Kim Smetanka, 41, of Uniontown, in Fayette County, started organizing a trip a couple of days ago. As word spread on social media, she decided to book a second bus to meet demand. Some people who live in Ohio and West Virginia are driving to her town in Southwestern Pennsylvania to meet up, she said, because all the buses in their hometowns were full.
“Our president, No. 1, he called for us to be there,” said Smetanka, who owns a pizza business with her husband. “I expect for this election to be overturned. I expect for Mike Pence to do what he can do, according to the Constitution. And I expect for a celebration on the ride home.”