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Trump's path to winning Pa. runs through small Rust Belt towns — like one near Biden's hometown

Julia Terruso, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Political News

CARBONDALE, Pa. -- Mayor Justin Taylor sat in his office in the century-old brick City Hall building overlooking downtown Carbondale, a framed photo of him with former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell on the wall. Taylor became mayor in this small city of 8,000 when he was 25, just a few years out of the University of Scranton.

Now, 18 years later, Taylor is a husband, a dad, and an owner of multiple businesses (small-town mayors don't make much). He has also, like so many of his constituents, jettisoned whatever ties he once felt to the Democratic Party -- even if he hasn't formally changed his registration.

"I'm honestly amazed at myself that I haven't switched yet," Taylor said in an interview in late July. "I don't get the Democratic Party anymore. They've moved so far left and it seems like it's all about getting as many votes as possible, not about being the party of the working class."

This (technically) Democratic mayor of a traditionally Democratic town off the I-81 corridor has shifted right along with Carbondale, Lackawanna County, and much of northeast Pennsylvania. While Democrats still outnumber Republicans in the state by about 780,000 voters, that edge has narrowed over the last four years as the GOP gained ground in once-safe Democratic bastions in northeast and southwest Pennsylvania. And if President Donald Trump wins the state again in November, it will be partly thanks to smaller cities like Carbondale scattered across Pennsylvania.

"We were always a Democratic town, always," said Lorraine Tomaine, 73, as she left a park where she'd gathered for a book club meeting. "But the town has become very, very conservative."

Tomaine, a retired math teacher, recalled the famous adage by the Democratic strategist James Carville, who once described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in the middle.

 

"I really feel like I live in Alabama now," she said.

While Trump has collapsed in the polls in Pennsylvania and nationally following his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, the race is likely to tighten in its final weeks. In a pivotal state Trump won by less than 1% of the vote in 2016 -- partly because of voters in Lackawanna County and bordering Luzerne County -- even small shifts in his favor in places like Carbondale could have outsized importance. And interviews with 20 residents and political operatives in the northeast suggest that places like Carbondale are trending even more pro-Trump than four years ago.

To understand Carbondale's political transformation, you need to go back to its roots. Residents proudly boast that Carbondale helped launch the Industrial Revolution. The country's first underground mine started here in 1831, and a railroad system followed to transport coal to Philadelphia and New York. The Democratic Party was an early backer of labor unions, which fought for fair wages and safer working conditions for miners.

As industrial jobs left, Carbondale's population shrank. And in more recent years, political allegiances started to erode.

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