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Salena Zito column: Rural Pennsylvania turns more red, but is it enough for Trump?
Election 2020

Salena Zito column: Rural Pennsylvania turns more red, but is it enough for Trump?

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Election 2020 Trump

President Donald Trump spoke at a campaign rally in Moon Township, Pa., on Sept. 22.


Afew months ago, if you had driven down Baptist Road in this middle-class southern suburb of Pittsburgh, it would have been hard to miss the Bernie Sanders shrine filling the yard of a tidy, yellow-brick ranch home.

There was the life-size cutout of the former presidential candidate, a large, homemade “FEEL THE BERN” sign along the berm of the road, a few “Bernie 2020” and “Get Berned” signs, as well as a lively decorated mailbox plastered with Bernie bumper stickers.

Sometime between the Pennsylvania primary in June (when Democratic voters gave Joe Biden their support) and a few weeks ago, the shrine came down, replaced by one yard sign reading, “GIANT METEOR 2020.”

Sometimes, disappointing primary election results frustrate voters so much they walk away from their party’s nominee. They traditionally decide to do one of three things: sit it out, vote third party or join the opposing party.

Few hope for a meteor to strike the Earth as an option — but, hey, it’s 2020, and we all get it.

This past month, a flurry of elected officials in southwestern Pennsylvania, most of them county sheriffs, chose the last of the traditional options, deciding that after lifelong affiliations with the Democratic Party, they had seen enough change to make them walk away.

In 2008, there were nearly double the number of registered Democrats over Republicans in Westmoreland County and James Albert was one of them. He had already been elected district judge as a Democrat for over a dozen years, and he would vote for Barack Obama that cycle and again in 2012.

Albert first served his community as a local police officer, and then as a county detective and a deputy sheriff before running for district judge. He came out of retirement this past year and won the race for sheriff as a Democrat.

Now there are more registered Republicans in Westmoreland County, and Albert is one of them. It is a decision he says he took seriously as he watched his party of birth leave less room for his pro-life and pro-Second Amendment values with each passing year.

When the party started walking away from supporting law enforcement, Albert had had enough. “What really convinced me,” he says, “was the past few months as the country has witnessed these riots where we saw the looting of businesses or arson attacks or the destruction of property, as well as assaults on innocent citizens and attacks on law enforcement … Then, David Dorn was killed.” Dorn, a retired police officer, was fatally shot during looting in St. Louis in June.

Jim Custer, like just about everyone in Fayette County in 1983, said that when you turned 18, you registered as a Democrat. “This was the county of coal miners and steelworkers and farmers and blue-collar workers, and that was the party who said they had their back.”

After he graduated from high school, Custer joined the military and eventually the state police. When he retired, he decided to run for county sheriff as a Democrat, a position he has held for the past five years.

The 54-year-old married father of two says the drift away from the party on the national level began long ago. His last vote for a Democratic presidential candidate was for Bill Clinton.

When he was asked by Butler County Sheriff Mike Slupe if he had any problem endorsing Trump alongside 14 other sheriffs, Custer didn’t even pause to answer. He changed his voter registration. Then during at a Trump rally in Pittsburgh, the president called him out by name and noted his party change.

The direction any party takes always is at the risk of shedding people who are unwilling to go along for the ride. For many establishment Republicans, Trump was a bridge too far and they went toward the Democrats. For Democrats like Custer, the longtime-leftward veer of the party lost them awhile ago.

While these switches in Western Pennsylvania are more about both parties’ realignments, it is worth noting Trump did win the state in 2016 on the backs of voters in counties such as Fayette, Westmoreland and the 10 others that surround Pittsburgh.

The calculation Biden seems to be making is the same one Hillary Clinton made in 2016: Run up the numbers in Philadelphia and suburban collar counties, plus Allegheny County, and hope the rural vote remains unenthused. Those areas are more populated, but you never really know how many Alberts and Custers out there are going to show up — or how many pro-meteor people are going to stay home.

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. © 2020,

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