Defining Conservatism Locally in a Contentious Landscape

by Teghan Simonton

WAYNESBURG, PA—During this Midterm Election cycle, communities nationwide have seen greater voter involvement than ever before—voter registration is up, campaigns are booming, people are talking. Greg Hopkins, chair of the Republican Committee of Greene County, Pennsylvania, knows that a lot of it has arisen out of contempt for President Donald Trump.

“He’s—let me think of a word to describe it,” Hopkins said. “Colorful.”

In the rural town of Waynesburg, the committee is housed in an office that used to be an art shop on the corner of a small street. The windows, which were once filled with handmade trinkets like jewelry and pottery, are now plastered with cut-outs of midterm election candidates, banners, and yard signs.

For Hopkins, these final weeks are filled with phone calls, campaign events, door-to-door canvassing and posting yard signs. It’s a lot of “shuffling,” he said, getting all of the volunteers the right tools and training to get the message out.

That message might be a complicated one during this election cycle, given the harsh division between the nation’s political parties recently. But despite chaos on the national political scene—one that included, in just the last two weeks, pipe bombs in the mail and a mass anti-Semitic shooting barely an hour away from Greene County—Hopkins said campaigning is simple.

“It’s easier when you have a candidate here, knocking on doors, going to events, being seen in the local community,” he said. “It makes the job of a committee a whole lot easier when you have that person give all their time for their seat. Someone on the state or national level, you get an appearance once a campaign season.”

Hopkins said that for him, the focus is not so much on party affiliation as it is on the individual candidates, like Betsy Rohanna McClure, a Republican state representative candidate who is running against the incumbent Democrat Pam Snyder. Hopkins said his office has focused much of their campaigning efforts on McClure’s race, and he think it’s gone well. But Snyder has held the seat representing Pennsylvania’s 50th District for three terms already. Around here and in Harrisburg, she is an institution.

Greene County, located in a rural corner of Pennsylvania, dominated economically by coal mining and the oil and gas industry, is home to a sparse population of middle-of-the-road voters. Those moderate voters are drawn to the Democratic Party’s protection of unionization, but also to the conservative values of the Republicans. Greene County showed strong support to President Donald Trump during the election—Trump received 10,849 votes from Greene County during the 2016 General Election, and Hillary Clinton received only 4,482, according to state data. Yet, the same county—and the entire congressional district it’s a part of—contains more registered Democrats than Republicans.

As Nov. 6 approaches, Hopkins said, a great challenge is just reaching this population, giving them the message, and guiding voters to look past the unrest in the nation’s capital.

Purple Counties

“Conservative Democrats,” was the term used by Ben Bright, chair of the Democratic Party Committee of Washington County, Pennsylvania. “Every area has their own type of Democrat,” he said, and the ones around here are different from other parts of the country. Many support gun rights, for example, given that area’s strong emphasis in hunting for sport.Bright believes southwestern Pennsylvania’s special brand of Democrat is getting stronger: in the last two years, the committee went through three chairmen. That brand of Democrat is becoming extremely rare nationally, as parties have become more ideologically sorted in recent decades.

Events were few and far between. But during this Midterm Election cycle, Washington County has witnessed a major increase in voter registration and volunteer participation – especially among younger demographics.

“I’m not a young Dem, I shouldn’t be considered a young Dem,” Bright said, reflecting on the committee elections last May, when at 47, he was the youngest person elected to the committee.

Since then, Bright has watched a College Democrats chapter sprout at nearby Washington & Jefferson College, and young democratic volunteerism flourish. Suddenly, 17- and 18-year-olds were winning seats on the committee. Like Hopkins, Bright thinks the shift has something to do with Trump.

“Counties like Washington County, they’re called those purple counties, where there are a lot of Republicans and they voted Trump in 2016,” he said. “But we’ve seen a lot of people that are getting involved because of Trump and they’re getting involved on the Democrat side because of what they’re seeing on the national level.”

With the increase, and with national speculation of a supposed “blue wave,” Bright said he is trying to stabilize and strengthen a party that has been mostly quiet and inconsistent over the years.

That takes a lot of work.

For Kelly Watson, chair of the communications committee of the Washington County Democratic Party, days are long and filled with constant tasks.

“I need a vacation,” she said over the phone, between meetings last week. In addition to her full-time job working in media and communications, she volunteers her time for the committee. So, during this election cycle, Watson’s life has been overtaken by putting together campaigns, mailing postcards, organizing phone banks and coordinating targeted voter lists.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge in the best possible way,” she said. “At the end of the day, you feel good because you’re working toward something and for a lot of people, and that’s what re-energizes you and that’s what keeps you engaged with it…You know, we come home and complain that our feet hurt and I’m tired and I didn’t get my laundry done, but you know what? I’m damn ready to go out and do this tomorrow.”

Watson said engagement among volunteers and Democratic voters has been strong “from the get-go,” making this Midterm Election cycle unique from previous years.

“People are so motivated this election,” she said. “And the people that are volunteering but also the people that are running the phone banks or the canvassing, that are overseeing the teams and coordinating everything—everyone has a motivation that we did not see [last year].”

So when it comes to talk of the “blue wave,” Watson said it’s a nice idea – but she’s not expecting anything. Like Hopkins, Watson said her focus—and her committee’s focus—is not on making Pennsylvania a swing state or breaking the region’s “Trump Country” stereotype. Like Hopkins in Greene County, Watson said the individual candidates matter most: electing candidates that will have a direct impact on the daily lives of constituents.

“We are not taking anything for granted,” she said. “We have to focus on our area. We have an awareness of what’s going on, but that’s not our focus.”

A Community Undefined

That’s not to say things don’t ever get contentious. The Republican Committee’s Facebook page is filled with and warnings of the “fake news media” and fiery attacks on Democratic policies.

Bright said that even in this rural area, the party must battle “misconceptions,” about being socialists, about wanting to take away all guns, etc. Watson said it is difficult for the community—tiny and closely-knit as it is—to separate itself from the bickering seen on a national scale.

“Right now, the political climate is so hot and so divided…” Watson said. “A lot on social media, email and TV being absorbed rather than talking to your next door neighbor, going directly to the source, getting to know your candidate.”

Those middle-of-the-road, “purple” voters are especially susceptible to being overwhelmed or misinformed by the partisanship, Watson said. That’s why both Republicans and Democrats in the area don’t seem to be campaigning with just their registered base–they have target audiences, yes, but for the most part, both parties are utilizing a grassroots approach to reach voters on either side of the aisle.

“I think than rather than talking to each other,” Martin said. “A lot of it is people that are on social media or on their email or watching certain programs on TV, and that’s what they’re absorbing. Rather than talking to their next-door neighbor who might be on the other side of the aisle, they’re relying on these third-party, random sources to find out what the other side is thinking or feeling or saying.”

The community is struggling to define itself, using anecdotes and poll numbers as conflicting tools of measurement.

Hopkins said voter registration doesn’t reflect the area’s true conservative values. Due to the region’s heavy and historic reliance on the coal industry, he said many people have grown up favoring the Democratic party because of its support of unionization. Indeed, according to Greene County voting registration statistics as of Oct. 29, the county contains 11,338 registered Democrats and 8,413 registered Republicans.

But Hopkins believes that the community at large still supports conservative views on the Second Amendment, Roe v. Wade and capitalism; voter registration just doesn’t reflect that.

“That mentality carries on even though you may think conservatively; those people will vote the other way, based on how their families voted,” said Hopkins. “I don’t think it paints an honest picture of how the thought process works here in our southwest region.”

Bright said Democrats may have edge in registration, but a lot of people never end up voting. He goes back to the importance of canvassing and getting the candidates to talk about issues the voters really care about – the only way to stave off the apathy.

On both sides of the political aisle, the party committees agreed, the local elections will be more telling than any national race could ever be. That’s why the candidates often transcend party lines, and voting outside of your party is never a taboo. It’s not about the parties, they said. It’s about the candidates.

“Better to have someone like that going out locally, seeing people, shaking their hands and having a face-to-face conversation,” said Hopkins. “Because in a small community like this, you will have that conversation with your representative sooner or later.”

For Watson, boggled down by work but enthusiastic as ever, once the dialogue is started, there is no excuse to not take part in the conversation.

“Get your ass out and vote.”

Teghan Simonton is a senior from Waynesburg University studying journalism and public relations.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The cover photo was taken by Luke Goodling.

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