In Luzerne County, voters divided ahead of midterms

Feature for WHYY, October 25 2018


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In downtown Wilkes-Barre, a man named Tom is sitting outside at a table watching CNN on his phone. He’s mistrustful of what he calls “the liberal media,” and doesn’t want to give his last name. He’s a registered Republican, but has a lot of criticism for the party. He’s a firm supporter, though, of President Donald Trump.

“When Trump got involved, I was like, ‘This guy is hilarious. He’s frank. He keeps it real,’” said Tom. “I registered to vote specifically for Trump.”

He had been supportive of President Obama at first, too, though he didn’t vote for him. Then, in Obama’s second term, Tom soured on the president. The Iran nuclear deal, the Obama administration’s directive on bathroom access for transgender people — suddenly Tom didn’t like where he thought the country was going.

Now, he’s thrilled with Trump. He thinks the Democrats are dangerous, and he’s planning to vote in his first midterm election.

“I jumped on the Trump train, not the Republican train,” he said.

This November, though, he is planning to vote a straight Republican ticket. So is everyone else in his life.

“I have my beliefs, my girlfriend shares them, and most of my family and friends share them,” he said. “It is a bubble.”

Luzerne County, of which Wilkes-Barre is the county seat, has become something of a poster child for Pennsylvania swing districts. It’s one of a handful of traditionally union-loving, coal-mining, Democratic strongholds that surprised most pollsters by going red in 2016.

Luzerne’s swing has spawned countless think pieces, and even a new book that argues it was this very county that delivered President Trump his 2016 victory.

But while the county as a whole gave Trump 60 percent of the vote, in a lot of precincts his margin was just a few dozen votes. That makes Luzerne less lop-sided than other parts of the state, like deep-blue Philadelphia or deep-red rural Western Pennsylvania.

And yet people in Luzerne feel just as cut off from the other side as anyone else.

Five minutes down the street from Tom is Jerry, who also doesn’t want to give his last name. “Most media is right of center,” he said, “corporate-owned.” To Jerry, it’s the Republicans who have lost their minds.

“I’m going to vote straight Democratic for these midterms,” he says. “It’s not only a matter of opposing Trump, but of promoting the best interests of this country. I feel that our democracy is on the line.”

Jerry says he doesn’t like that the Democratic Party takes money from corporate donors. “I think they need to grow some spines and stop bringing butter knives to a gunfight,” he said. Yet, despite criticisms, he’s supporting incumbent Democratic Senator Bob Casey. He thinks the stakes are too high not to.

Then a man walks by carrying a sign for Lou Barletta, Casey’s Republican challenger, and Jerry coughs. “Here’s one of them… Republi-cons.”

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radioJen Kinneyreporting