Earlier this month, Joe Biden announced his economic plan near his hometown of Scranton, part of the anthracite coal region that once fueled America’s industrial ascendance and, in 2016, secured Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Biden’s remarks were filled with the populist rhetoric that resonates with working-class voters, yet this crucial electoral demographic remains apprehensive about Democratic policies. This is especially true in Pennsylvania, where Democrats’ positions on energy and the Covid-19 lockdowns are alienating, rather than attracting, the blue-collar voters who, for decades, formed the party’s political foundation.
Polls consistently show Biden leading in Pennsylvania, a largely suburban state where regions like Philadelphia’s “collar” counties, metro Harrisburg, and the Lehigh Valley increasingly trend Democratic. But Biden’s favorable position doesn’t translate into a preference for his party’s economic platform. One recent poll, for instance, showed Trump leading his Democratic opponent by a 51-36 margin among those who see the economy as the top issue. As Jim Lee, president and CEO of Susquehanna Polling and Research, which conducted the poll, told a local Fox affiliate: “If this becomes an economy pocketbook election, you can’t rule Donald Trump out because, on the key issue most voters care about, he’s winning among jobs voters.”
This issue is particularly evident among labor. Last year, when Biden launched his campaign in a Pittsburgh Teamsters hall, he told the crowd of card-carrying union workers that, “If I’m going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s going to happen here.” Yet this traditionally Democratic cohort—many employed by the state’s energy sector—questions a progressive-oriented party opposed to fossil fuels. “Joe Biden is really one of us. I always loved the man,” one registered Democrat told the Washington Examiner. “He scares me now. Is he embracing the new Green Deal or whatever they are calling it? He needs to get some stuff straight.”
Biden is trying to modulate his energy positions in a party increasingly beholden to left-wing environmental interests. The “unity task force” set up by Biden and his vanquished primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, has released a policy platform addressing a number of key issues, including climate change; the platform calls for a carbon-free power sector by 2035. The plan, however, does not explicitly propose banning fossil fuels; nor does it address a ban on fracking, which revolutionized the natural gas industry in southwestern Pennsylvania. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Democratic congressman Conor Lamb, who represents a Trump-friendly district in the region, said that the Biden plan’s “research section shows that we understand, for many industrial processes, fossil fuels are going to be a critical component for years to come.” Indeed, as Axios notes, Biden’s climate plan “mentions the word union more than it does the climate itself.”
But Pennsylvania’s union voters, including Biden supporters, aren’t buying the former vice president’s assurances—especially when they see his association with Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a task-force member. They question, moreover, Democrat support for transitioning to clean energy, such as wind and solar, considering that the natural gas industry supports more than 300,000 jobs—many unionized—throughout Pennsylvania. Biden’s propensity for gaffes—he said “no new fracking” in a March debate, then clarified that he meant only on federal property—and his suggestion that coal miners should “learn to program” only intensified their concerns. “I don’t know how he walks back those comments he’s made,” Jim Kunz, an International Union of Operating Engineers business manager, told The Center Square. “We get stuck in the middle of trying to cherry pick candidates and telling our members to just go with their conscience.”
Pennsylvania voters’ disillusionment with Democrats’ economic policies isn’t limited to Biden. Throughout the pandemic, the state’s progressive governor, Tom Wolf, has managed to alienate both Republicans and Democrats with his politicized, opaque, and even punitive economic lockdown policies—all enforced through emergency powers. Last week, in response to rising Covid-19 cases, Wolf announced that bars and restaurants must limit their operations to 25 percent of capacity; bars that didn’t serve food, meantime, were ordered to close temporarily unless they offered sit-down, dine-in meals. “We got 8 ½ hours’ notice,” said Rui Lucas, a suburban Philadelphia restaurant owner. Noting that restaurants could barely survive at 50 percent occupancy, he concludes that “we are dead in the water” with the new limit.
Wolf’s controversial policies go beyond restaurants. Last week, he announced the withholding of nearly $13 million in CARES Act funding from south-central Pennsylvania’s Lebanon County. The decision was in response to a county vote, passed by Republican commissioners in May, to enact a phased reopening ahead of Wolf’s mandated schedule.
“Don’t come and say you want something from the state when you haven’t followed the rules. These are the consequences,” the governor said at a press conference, where he also suggested that county residents should not reelect the GOP commissioners. The county responded this week by filing a lawsuit against Wolf in Commonwealth Court. The lawsuit, which accuses Wolf of acting like a “de facto king,” argues that his “refusal” to release the appropriated funds “effectively consolidates complete legislative power in the executive branch during a declared state of emergency.”
Pennsylvania’s voters will ultimately view the election as a referendum on the pandemic. Though the state’s political map favors Biden, his party’s energy platform and Wolf’s overreach could lead enough disenchanted voters to the GOP fold. Lamb’s district is a gauge of the electoral mood. The Democratic congressman, hailed for his upset special-election victory in 2018, was outraised in the second quarter by Sean Parnell, a U.S. Army combat veteran. The district—home to Royal Dutch Shell’s future petrochemical complex, one of America’s largest construction sites—includes the kind of working-class voter who questions the Democratic Party’s commitment to his economic interests. Statewide, policies that imperil the crucial energy sector or shutter small businesses could lead blue-collar voters to conclude that Biden, like Wolf, is not their friend.
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