Pennsylvania Purple: Traditional Party Lines Blur as Midterms Approach

As a farmer just outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Michelle Piriczky, 29, knows that from the weather to the quality of her harvest, there is a lot she can’t control.  Yet she still hopes to gain some control over her future by supporting Democratic candidates in the midterm elections next Tuesday. She say she’s unhappy with the direction of the country and the testy political atmosphere.  “Humanity in general, feels like it took a hit,” Piriczky said.

For some Pennsylvania voters, life in 2018 is better now than it was a few years ago.  Republican Collin Murphy recently shopped at a Home Depot in nearby Dickson City for tile to remodel a bathroom. The purchase represented the confidence he feels in the economy since the 2016 election. “Honestly, I don’t know what has happened, but business for myself is up probably about 20 percent from last year,” said Murphy, 27, an industrial rigger, who installs equipment in factories.

As the midterm elections approach, the political persuasion of the state will be tested again.  “The pocketbook issues that drove some of those people to Trump, and his brashness – they’re still there,” said Dr. Tom Baldino, a Wilkes University political scientist.  “The question is, will they turn out?”

Once a Blue state that supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, Pennsylvania flipped Red in 2016, choosing Republican candidate Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th president.  Although voters in the Democratic stronghold of Lackawanna County supported Hillary Clinton, the margin was close, with Clinton winning by about three percentage points over Donald Trump.

The upcoming midterm elections may reveal if party labels still have any significance in Pennsylvania.

There are currently more than four million registered Democrats and more than three million registered Republicans in Pennsylvania, numbers similar going into the 2016 election.  

On Tuesday, voters must decide if incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Casey should be re-elected for a third term, or if he should be replaced by Republican Lou Barletta, who has been visibly supported by Trump. The political volatility extends to the state level, as current Democratic Governor Tom Wolf faces a challenge by Republican businessman Scott Wagner.

Pennsylvania’s political landscape is still in flux. Baldino describes Pennsylvania as a purple state, in part because it’s a place where both parties can have success. “Despite Trump’s victory in 2016, the Democrats won three statewide races even as the Republicans held majorities in the state legislature and House,” said Baldino.  He said that issues such as health care and immigration policies are top concerns for voters, and doesn’t feel that the furor surrounding the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh will lead to as strong of a push at the polls as many Democrats would like.   

While there are profound differences in political philosophy between Democrats and Republicans in Scranton, there is some agreement that the discourse needs to be more civil.   “I do like Donald Trump. I think he has a good heart,” said Rebecca Comerford, 44, a hairstylist. “Politically, he’s too abrasive, and he needs to listen more to his wife.”

But some voters aren’t as forgiving.  “I’m disgusted with Donald Trump and how he talks to people and his behavior,” said Sheila Wilner, 63, a government employee.  “There’s no more respect. Common decency is lacking,” she said.

A battle over politics and personality will be determined on Election Day, in a state that may once again break traditional party molds.

Farmer Michelle Piriczky, a Democrat hopes 2018 midterms will bring a change in Washington, D.C.
Wilkes University Professor Tom Baldino says health care and immigration are top midterm issues.



Email the Author, Marc Stewart at mds828@nyu.edu