The path to presidential victory runs directly through Pennsylvania. The state holds 20 electoral votes and Donald Trump’s 2016 win was decided by less than 50,000 votes, or less than one percentage point. Polls show it will be a close race again in 2020. Over the next year, WESA is following four voters at the center of this election about the big issues that will sway their decisions at the ballot box.
By no means do these four voters speak for the entirety of western Pennsylvania, but they do broadly represent key voting groups here.
Mary Henze is 52 and lives in Jefferson Hills. Henze is a Republican, although she had been a Democrat for decades. The last Democratic president she voted for was Barack Obama in 2008. She liked his hopeful message and felt that same optimism in Donald Trump. She’s been on disability since 2010 although she’s worked as a substitute teacher’s aide and got her ministry degree last summer.
“This is what I would love to see: 2020 Trump. 2024 Don Jr., 2024 Don Jr., 2032 Ivanka, 2036 Ivanka, and then 2040 then that’s time for Barron,” she said.
Key Issues: Henze’s faith is extremely important to her, and she considers herself evangelical nondenominational. She’s anti-abortion rights, a gun owner and opposes Medicare for All.
Ed Cwiklinksi is 46 and lives in Bethel Park. He is self-employed and does cybersecurity for businesses in the area. Cwiklinski is a registered Republican and describes himself as a “centrist conservative.” He has occasionally voted for Democrats at the local level. In 2016, Cwiklinski liked Republican candidates U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Wisconsin Gov. Paul Walker. He voted for Trump and plans to support him again in 2020.
“It’s not that I’m a fierce Republican, it’s that I’m a fierce conservative,” he said. Cwiklinski is frustrated with a lot of politicians in Washington, D.C. – Republicans included. “When politicians get to the Beltway, there's no more ‘I’m going to Washington to fight for you.’ It’s more – ‘I’m going to Washington to make sure I have a job for the rest of my life.’”
Key Issues: Fiscal responsibility, small government, supports the Second Amendment, and is an originalist, believing the Constitution should be interpreted as he believes the framers intended.
Savannah Henry is 19 and grew up in Erie, Pa. She’s a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, and will probably be pre-law, majoring in English writing and gender studies. Henry was a high school senior when a school shooting in Parkland, Fla. killed 17 people. In response, she organized a walk out at her school to advocate for gun control, and attended the March for Our Lives protest in Washington, D.C. Henry is president of the Planned Parenthood club at Pitt. 2020 will be her first time voting in a presidential election, and likes Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“That being said, I don’t have the mentality that’s ‘anything but Trump,’” Henry said. “I also don’t have the mentality that we have to vote for this moderate candidate. I don’t think that settling for Biden because he has [more support] is necessarily the right route to go.”
Key Issues: Climate change, gun control, reproductive rights, and police brutality against communities of color.
Linda Bishop is 68, and lives north of Pittsburgh in Mars. Bishop worked in international finance before retiring. She’s also served on the North Allegheny school board. Since Trump was elected, she’s been active in suburban grassroots efforts to elect Democrats like U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D-17).
“My background has been sort of purple,” Bishop said. “I’ve been an independent. I’ve been a Republican. I’m a Democrat because I feel like the Republican Party left me quite a few years ago by going so far to the right.”
She was a registered Republican in the 2016 primary but wrote in Bernie Sanders once she realized Trump would probably be the Republican nominee.
Key Issues: Gun control, reproductive rights, health care as a human right.
What They Think About Impeachment
This month, House Democrats announced articles of impeachment against President Trump. The impeachment investigation began this fall after a whistleblower said Trump asked the President of Ukraine to investigate one of his political rivals, former vice president Joe Biden. Democrats support the investigation, Republicans do not. So it’s not a surprise that there’s a partisan split for our voters too.
Republicans: ‘They came up with a phone call’
“I look at that call, and the feeling I get is, ‘O.K., maybe he handled it too bluntly, but that’s President Trump,’” Republican Mary Henze said. “He’s just blunt and straight to the point.”
Henze doesn’t think that Trump was trying to get dirt on Biden. She says Trump was trying to get information about Ukraine interfering in the 2016 election.
The entire national intelligence community says Russia was behind 2016 interference. And experts say efforts to place the blame on Ukraine stem from a Russian propaganda effort.
But Mary says Ukraine is a corrupt place, and that’s why Trump held up nearly $400 million in military aid this past summer.
“And then – even if you said we can argue about that, cause we can – the money was given,” she said.
The New York Times reported the president knew about the whistleblower report when he released the aid, which has drawn skepticism from critics. Henze said Trump “probably did” release the aid for that reason, but professed to be untroubled by it.
Republican Ed Cwiklinski also dismissed the idea that Trump was pursuing a personal agenda. Cwiklinski thinks Trump was just asking about investigating corruption in Ukraine, not tying a political favor to military aid.
“I don’t think there was anything wrong with heads of state asking for favors,” he said.
In any case, he sees the entire impeachment process as partisan.
“By and large the Democrats want to get him out of office,” he said. “They’ve been trying to get him out of office before he was in office, and they came up with a phone call.”
For that reason, Cwiklinski expects the Republican-controlled Senate to dismiss the whole investigation quickly.
“I think [Republican U.S. Sen.] Lindsey Graham is going to take about 10 minutes and say are you kidding?” Cwiklinski said. “They’re going to vote and it’s going to be over.”
Democrats: ‘At the heart of this is the integrity of the election’
All four voters on our panel expect the House of Representatives to impeach Trump. But the Democrats have different ideas of how much to prioritize the issue.
“The topic of impeachment is not like super widely discussed in the spaces I find myself on campus,” said Democrat Savannah Henry. “When we do talk about political issues, the impeachment is not really coming up. Or if it is coming up, we’re all kind of ‘what exactly is going on?’”
Savannah Henry thinks organizing for Election Day is more important and said her friends are more focused on topics like climate change.
“[The election in ] 2020 is something that’s inevitably going to happen,” Henry said, while the notion of Congress impeaching and removing Trump from office is unlikely. That’s why she thinks paying attention to the Democratic debates, and choosing the right nominee, is so important. “By paying attention to the debates, you’re kind of ... getting Trump out of office because you’re putting your vote forward.”
By contrast, Democrat Linda Bishop recorded an impeachment hearing during our interview -- just so she could go back and watch the whole thing. She acknowledged that not everyone is paying attention to impeachment as closely as she is, but she said the issue is too important to ignore.
“The president solicited foreign interference in our 2020 presidential election,” Bishop said. “If that isn’t an impeachable offense, than I honestly don’t know what is.”
Bishop said the actions at the heart of the impeachment process raise questions about whether the election will be conducted fairly.
“Some people say, well, why don’t we let the voters decide next year,” Bishop said. “Well, that would be fine, except the very issue at the heart of this is the integrity of the 2020 election. And if we just let this go, then what’s to stop Donald Trump and his people from continuing to try to solicit foreign interference or in any other way interfere with that election?”
If Trump is removed from office, Trump supporter Mary Henze has a warning.
“I hope and I pray it doesn’t happen, but I think what you might see happen is civil unrest,” she said.
This story is the first installment of our series Split Ticket.