JOHNSTOWN — Attorney General Josh Shapiro picked Republican-dominated Cambria County as ground zero for his general election campaign kickoff after breezing through his uncontested primary.
“This is an example of a community that I think too often times (has) been forgotten in our state capital, that I want to make real investments in,” the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania governor said following a speech to a crowd of approximately 100 in the City of Johnstown. “I see the people here. I’ve listened to them, and I want to make sure I fight to make sure they have a better future, for their kids, for their schools, for our economy, for public safety, for our freedoms.
“This is the kind of community that matters so much in Pennsylvania, and I wanted to make sure we kicked off the general election here, tonight.”
Located in southwestern Pennsylvania, red-heavy Cambria County was a less-than-obvious choice for a Democrat from the eastern part of the commonwealth. Residents here voted 67%-30% for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. They similarly voted 68%-31% for Trump over President Joe Biden in 2020.
But the Shapiro campaign may see opportunity for inroads in Cambria and similar mid-sized counties — not just because the politics of state senator and GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano are considered to the right of even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but because voters here once voted consistently blue.
“This is a community that has been left behind and ignored too often,” Shapiro press secretary Manuel Bonder said of Johnstown. “As Josh Shapiro runs for governor it is incredibly important to show up everywhere and tell folks that he’s going to be a governor for all Pennsylvanians.”
Cambria County GOP reaction
Cambria County GOP Chair Jackie Kulback laughed when asked about her reaction to the news that Shapiro had chosen her figurative backyard to launch his general election campaign.
“I smiled and thought, ‘Looks like we’re making a difference,'” Kulback said.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by approximately 7,000 in this county. Each county row office — with the exception of the controller and commissioners board — is held by a member of the GOP.
In the not-so-distant past, however, Cambria County was solidly blue.
Decades ago, Democrats here held a 2-1 voter registration edge over Republicans. A majority of Cambria County voters supported Barack Obama over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
In many ways, Johnstown and the rest of Cambria County are emblematic of the Rust Belt “flyover” areas that may have cost Hillary Clinton the presidency in 2016.
This is an old steel town that’s grappled with decades of declining population. Locals have long blamed international trade deals for job losses — trade deals that Trump had promised to tear up and rework to their advantage.
Since the end of Obama’s first term, Cambria County has trended in a radically Republican direction. Democrats still maintained a 10,000-voter edge after Trump’s 2016 election. That advantage was wiped out fully by 2020.
With the Trump experiment perhaps in the rearview, Democrats like Shapiro may be eyeing these areas as battlegrounds again.
Kulback — a retired CFO for Gautier Steel in Johnstown — said it’s “an absolute stretch” for anyone to believe that a significant number of Cambria County voters will turn on the GOP’s candidates this fall. She said residents will blame Democratic policies for the rising inflation impacting households.
“Have you put gas in your car lately? Have you paid your electric bill? Have you bought food? They’re hitting the trifecta on that,” she said.
Shapiro and the union vote
During his Johnstown visit, Shapiro discussed eliminating reliance on standardized school testing, improving internet access and hiring more police to canvass Pennsylvania communities. He pledged to ensure that people don’t “get screwed” by corporate America and predatory student loan practices.
In listing his priorities, Shapiro on several occasions characterized himself as a pro-union candidate who can make things happen in Harrisburg — a nod perhaps to Cambria County’s blue-collar background in steel making and coal mining.
“I know I’m going to compete real hard here, and this is an important community. It’s why I chose to launch our general election campaign here,” Shapiro said.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence that we’re going to do really well here in Cambria County, but I’ve got to put in the work. Our campaign has to put in the work, and it starts here tonight.”
It’s too early to tell whether he’ll be successful in this regard. Rolling back the MAGA wave in the communities between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia isn’t likely to happen overnight, if at all.
But — in a commonwealth where Trump won by less than 1 percentage point in 2016 and Biden flipped four years later by less than 2 percentage points — even marginal progress in places like Cambria County could be the difference between Shapiro breezing to victory and losing sleep between now and November.
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