This year’s municipal elections, along with the 2020 presidential and U.S. House of Representatives races, will take place in a regional political landscape that has gone through a decade-in-the-making transformation.
In 2008, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat, was a giant in Washington, D.C., representing Johnstown in the 12th Congressional District, on his way to eventually becoming the longest serving congressman ever from Pennsylvania.
He easily won re-election that year, as part of what was then a familiar strong showing for the Democratic Party in Cambria County. John Wozniak (35th Senatorial District), Bryan Barbin (71st Legislative District), Frank Burns (72nd Legislative District) and Gary Haluska (73rd Legislative District) all earned victories, while Barack Obama carried the county during his successful presidential bid.
Just two years earlier, Ed Rendell and Bob Casey Jr. were the top vote-getters in the county in their respective gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.
The only Republican successes were Bill Shuster winning reelection to the 9th Congressional District seat in 2008 and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter carrying Cambria in 2004.
But times have changed.
In 2018, Burns was the only Democrat to either win a race in Cambria or carry the county in a larger federal or statewide contest.
Republicans dominated broadly. Jim Rigby unseated Barbin. Tommy Sankey won in the 73rd. Current congressmen Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (15th Congressional District) and John Joyce (13th Congressional District) were the high vote-getters in Cambria. Lou Barletta and Scott Wagner racked up sizable margins in Cambria, but lost their overall bids for U.S. Senate and governor.
Meanwhile, back in 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and then-state Senate candidate Wayne Langerholc Jr. all topped the county on their way to victories.
Four main points highlight the broad scope of the change:
• There were 39,721 registered Democrats and 33,181 Republicans at the end of January. Democrats held a 57,025 to 28,284 edge at the time of the 2008 general election.
• In 2006, Casey received almost 64 percent of the vote in Cambria County. He got only 43.5 last year.
• Rigby defeated Barbin after losing to him three previous times, including in 2008.
• Haluska ran unopposed in the 2008 general election. Sankey, in the same district, had no Democratic opponent in 2018.
“The way I’m looking at this is that the midterm election and the presidential election just solidified, if you will, the movement away from the Democrats, as small-town and rural America,” said Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs.
“But, in this case, small-town and rural Pennsylvania became much more Republican-orientated. So that’s only been increasing over the decade. It’s not wilted at all.”
Madonna summarized: “I don’t see anything likely to change.”
Much of the shift locally and nationwide has been attributed to the Republican Party being perceived as more in line with small-town and rural voters on cultural issues, such as abortion and the Second Amendment, and in economic areas, including agriculture and manufacturing.
“Unless the Democrats develop an agenda for the working class, I think that there is going to continue to be the movement away from the Democrats,” Madonna said. “Eventually that filters down.”
Cambria County Republican Committee Chairwoman Jackie Kulback said “just having good candidates on the ballot” has been the key to the local GOP’s success.
“I think we had an organized message,” Kulback said. “When you’re second (in registration), you really do have to fight harder.
“We still have a deficit in voter registration. We’re working hard to talk to people and show them that, especially the Republicans in our region, are working for everyone who’s trying to just make a living.”
In 2019, county row office, municipal and school board elections will take place in Cambria County.
Then, in 2020, the region could once again attract national attention, as it did in 2016 when both Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton campaigned in Johnstown, as did numerous high-level surrogates.
Mary Lou Davis, a co-founder of Indivisible Johnstown, thinks Democratic candidates for president and the House will need to remain true to what she considers the party’s core beliefs during those campaigns.
“Hopefully they’re going to stick with the Democratic message, which is health care, a reasonable tax plan – which is going to be a nightmare to fix,” Davis said. “The tax plan they have in place right now is a nightmare. The way they did it is a nightmare. But they have to strengthen our public education. There does need to be more support of unions. The minimum wage needs to be raised.”
She said voters were “bamboozled” by Trump and his supporters, leaving the country to deal with the consequences of his presidency.
“What I see right now is that we are weakened in every arena,” Davis said. “I think we’re weakened on the national stage. I think we’re weakened in so far as security. I think we’re weakened domestically. We have such problems, and I cannot for the life of me understand the support – particularly in these areas, in Cambria County – that is given to these people.”