Cambria County is now officially Republican Party territory.
As of Friday, the GOP held an advantage of 37,951 registered voters to 37,826 for the Democratic Party, with about 8,800 third party and independents also counted, according to the county’s elections office. It is the first time in recent history that more Republicans than Democrats were on the rolls.
To put the flip into perspective, for the November 2000 general election, there were 57,060 Democrats, 28,818 Republicans and approximately 5,500 other registered voters.
“This has been coming for a while,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
Robert Gleason Jr., former chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party and Cambria County Republican Party, recalls working with a sizable registered voter disadvantage throughout his career, just like his father, Robert Gleason Sr., did when he led the county party from November 1949 until August 1996.
“That’s just a wonderful thing,” Gleason said. “I wish he was still alive to see this because he used to fight against those big Democratic registration edges. He was chairman for 50 years and it was always a struggle. Every once in a while, he’d be able to elect a Republican, but it was always a difficult thing. We always worked on registration, but it was difficult. It was a Democrat county. The people weren’t ready to change.”
Even Gleason could not remember a time when the GOP enjoyed a voter registration edge.
“I think my father told me that prior to World War II the Republicans might have had a majority, but that’s a long time ago,” Gleason said.
Current Cambria County Republican Party Chairwoman Jackie Kulback said a plan was implemented in the early 2010s to increase GOP registration and develop candidates for office.
“It was not one thing,” Kulback said. “It was just a lot of hard work that went into it.”
The plan came to fruition with Republicans now holding the majority of state legislature positions, along with both area congressional seats, and having flipped control of three row offices during the 2019 election, although two of the three county commissioners are still Democrats.
“For us, it is business as usual,” said Commissioners Tom Chernisky and B.J. Smith, both Democrats, in a joint statement when asked about the flip in voter registration to the GOP and who they are supporting in this year’s presidential race. “We will continue to govern by knowing that people are more important than party. During our tenure, collaboration has been a priority working with citizens, elected officials, businesses, nonprofits and agencies. We will continue to stand and fight for Cambria County values.”
Republicans and Democrats alike attribute the trend toward the GOP, which has occurred in counties all throughout southwest Pennsylvania, to rural and small-town voters connecting more with the GOP message on issues such as abortion, the Second Amendment, law enforcement and climate change.
Madonna said those voters feel the Democrats have “deserted them.”
“The national Democrats have just left our county behind absolutely,” Kulback said. “It’s the Hollywood elites. They just don’t understand what it means to be a blue-collar worker in Cambria County.”
President Donald Trump, who carried the county with 67% of the vote in 2016, accelerated the process.
On May 19, 2015, just a few weeks before he announced his candidacy, the Democrats held an advantage of 46,589 to 26,941 in Cambria County.
“He really resonates to common people,” Kulback said.
Cambria County Controller Ed Cernic Jr., a stalwart of local Democratic Party politics, said, “The Trump wave is running stronger than ever. However, I don’t buy into all that stuff.”
But he does think “people are switching to Republican because the Democratic Party has gone so far left that the people don’t relate to it anymore. I understand that. I’m not one of those people. I’m a middle-of-the-road Democrat.”
Cernic said the national Democrats “have to get out of their totally liberal mold.”
“They have to go back to their roots where they were for working families and people who based their faith and religion on God and didn’t want to worry about taking guns away from people, even though they haven’t done it,” Cernic said. “They have to go back to the foundation of this country.”
He believes Democratic Party nominee former Vice President Joe Biden can appeal to local voters during this year’s election.
“Joe Biden is a middle-of-the-road guy,” Cernic said. “He and I are personal friends. Joe Biden is a good man. There’s no question in my mind he is a good man. He’s a good man for this country at the right time. My issue is will the left wing of the party pull him so hard that he would have to compromise his values and his beliefs? That’s my question. The Joe Biden I know I have no problem at all supporting, and I do support him. I just hope that he can bring this country back to the center because the extreme right is no good either.”