While it’s almost cliché to call western Pennsylvania an election battleground, local political organizers do not take the status for granted. And as this year’s campaign comes to a close in the age of COVID-19, members of both parties are mobilizing voters in their own way.
Former state Rep. Rick Saccone, for one, has taken his cues from President Donald Trump himself: Earlier this month, the Elizabeth Township Republican hosted a rally for the president in his backyard.
Massive rallies have long been a signature campaign tactic of Trump’s, and this year they’ve also become a symbol of his attitude toward the coronavirus – a big difference between him and Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden.
At Saccone’s rally, scores of people, including a couple that traveled all the way from Harrisburg, filled rows of lawn chairs and spilled onto a grassy hillside. While Trump signs appeared at every turn, there was hardly a mask in sight.
Saccone said events like his rally give the president, and his supporters, strength.
“We want to support our president … and this is Trump Country out here,” Saccone said. “These rallies help to bring people of like mind together so that they can fellowship together and reinforce and … encourage each other.”
Saccone led the crowd in chanting “Four more years!,” “Drain the swamp!,” “We love you, Mr. President!,” and other expressions of encouragement. A camera crew filmed video of the event, which Saccone later posted to YouTube.
The event also featured food, a raffle, live music, prayer, and a lot of talk about what attendees believe Trump gets right. Some highlighted his handling of the economy and promises to undo the Affordable Care Act. But Nurse Lori Fritz said she focuses on “abortion and upholding the Second Amendment, with guns and God.”
Speaking from a small stage, Saccone told the crowd that government bureaucrats, activists, and academics have undermined the president’s agenda. A professor himself, Saccone said that such resistance underscores the importance of rallies like his.
“He needs to know that the people are still behind him because, [if] you just listen to the media, you think he's sunk,” Saccone said. “Remember it was the same with [2016 Democratic candidate] Hillary [Clinton]: ‘This race is over. He should just give up now.’”
Saccone said, while that narrative can make Trump voters think they’re alone, events like his give them some comfort. Attendee Jeff Sorick said Saccone's rally affirmed his faith that their side will prevail.
“I like to think we are the silent majority,” Sorick said. “Everybody needs to come out and vote.”
Biden supporters, too, have made a spirited push to the finish line. But concern over the threat of COVID-19 is far more apparent at their events. At a mid-October canvass kickoff outside of the Allegheny County Labor Council headquarters, for example, everyone wore a mask and tried to spread out.
Participants filled the council’s parking lot as cars and trucks barrelled by on Route 51, some honking their horns in support. Council president Darrin Kelly led the event, speaking from a platform that hung off the end of a trailer and was adorned with a red, white, and blue banner that read, “You’re In Union Country.”
“Three-and-a-half years, we have watched our democracy be torn apart,” Kelly said. “But the greatest thing about our democracy that this president cannot tear down is you have the right to take back what our forefathers have built.”
In a series of impassioned speeches, Democratic officeholders from across the state accused Trump of hurting workers on numerous fronts, including corporate tax cuts, judicial appointments, and a failure to mitigate the COVID crisis. They predicted that Biden would instead be a champion for labor.
Ordinarily, unions strive to get out the vote with a highly organized ground game. But due to the pandemic, Kelly said they’ve avoided knocking doors.
“It does present a unique challenge,” he said. “But the challenge can be worked with … whether [it’s by] social media or … mail pieces or by phone. We have to adjust.”
Grassroots organizers have also hustled for Democratic votes, especially in hotly contested suburbs. Women like longtime volunteer Annie Shaner have been central to that effort.
Shaner, who started a grassroots group called Peters Township Citizens for Democracy said Democrats in her neighborhood have become much more organized. But she noted that a lot of Democratic voters in her area need to be mobilized.
“We're primarily Republican here, so they feel they can't make a difference,” Shaner said.
Leading up to this fall’s election, Shaner and other organizers have hosted events and persistently canvassed their neighborhood. But Shaner said one of her best tools has been a series of homemade lawn signs such as one that focuses on accusations that Trump called American soldiers “losers” and “suckers.”
Shaner admitted her signs don’t always go over well with her Republican neighbors, but she said this year’s election is too important to hold back.
“People think I love politics. I don't. I hate politics,” she said. “I [get involved] because it's the right thing to do. And … if I don't do it, I can't complain.”
So while Shaner sympathizes with people who are sick of the campaign, she said she’ll do all she can to get as many of them as possible at least to vote.