This article is shared with LebTown by content partner Spotlight PA.
By Ashad Hajela of Spotlight PA State College
HARRISBURG — Building a winning electoral coalition in Pennsylvania is hard.
Voters of all races, creeds, and economic backgrounds reside in the state, and to come out on top office seekers have to woo them with policies and politics that speak to a diverse bloc.
Democrats are so far holding the lead in this year’s marquee races for governor and U.S. Senate. But the polls don’t tell the whole story, an echo of 2016, when they failed to capture former President Donald Trump’s wave of support with disaffected white, union-town voters.
Since then, Republicans have continued to build strength among some working-class voters, while Democrats have made inroads in vote-rich Philly suburbs, which the GOP has long counted on to tip the scales their way in statewide races.
Moving forward, both parties need to capture the support of independent voters, a group that is steadily growing.
That’s the complex political geography the candidates are navigating this year.
Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh history professor who has studied grassroots political advocacy in Pennsylvania and occasionally volunteers for local Democratic candidates, believes Democratic nominees Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman, vying for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively, are making “two plausible versions of a different pitch” to win the Nov. 8 election.
The two Democrats have emphasized their belief that this midterm election will determine the future of critical rights in Pennsylvania, including abortion and voting access.
Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, has also played up his support for abortion and his law enforcement background to appeal to suburbanites, while Fetterman, the lieutenant governor, has focused on, on Putnam put it, “anti-establishment vibes’’ that could appeal to independents.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Republican from Franklin County who is challenging Shapiro for the state’s top job, has forged a different strategy. He has campaigned almost singularly to a loyal base that supports his far-right views.
Celebrity heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, meanwhile, has largely ignored Mastriano, focusing on attacking Fetterman on everything from his post-stroke recovery to his progressive stances on issues like issuing pardons in hopes of keeping Republicans’ old-school suburban base in place.
To better understand the choices Pennsylvanians face, Spotlight PA spoke to 11 people across the state about whether they plan to vote in November and for whom.
Three reporters connected with likely voters who served as sources for previous stories and ones who responded to a Franklin & Marshall poll and said they were willing to speak to the media.
The reporters focused specifically on residents of key regions of the state as well as people who described themselves as willing to flip between parties. These are the kinds of voters who are likeliest to decide big races in closely divided Pennsylvania.
Most voters appeared set in their choices — some because they have a strong tie to a party, and others because they have already developed strong opinions about the candidates.
Meanwhile, the voters who were undecided about the candidates, or about voting altogether, tended to say they’re frustrated with politicians and their rhetoric.
- The Republicans worried about extremism
- The new voter
- Disconnected, disillusioned
- Ambivalent big-city Democrats
- Democrats who have voted for Republicans — but not this time around
The Republicans worried about extremism
Stacy Naulty, Montgomery County
Stacy Naulty’s problem with the governor’s race, she says, is that she really doesn’t like either candidate.
She’s 43, works as an elementary special education teacher in a Bucks County public school, has four kids, and lives near Lansdale, about an hour from Philadelphia. She’s a registered Republican in an area that has been trending Democratic for more than a decade, and while she voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, she also supported a second term for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018.
While Naulty likes “some of the conservative aspects” of Mastriano’s platform, she thinks other things — like his total opposition to abortion under all circumstances, and comments that he would cut funding to public schools — are “far too extreme.”
Earlier in the election cycle, Naulty considered crossing party lines and voting for Shapiro. But in recent weeks, she cooled on that idea. Crime in Philadelphia is a big part of the change. It’s been a centerpiece of GOP messaging in the final months of the election.
Naulty says that fundamentally, though, her issue with Shapiro is that she doesn’t believe he is as moderate as he seems on the campaign trail.
“He knows what he’s dealing with. If he appeals a little bit more to the moderates, and not the extreme progressives, then he’ll get those votes of the people who don’t want to deal with an extreme conservative like Mastriano,” Naulty said. “I just feel like he is lying to capture those votes.”
Naulty says she’ll probably vote Libertarian for governor. She cannot remember her chosen candidate’s name during her discussion with Spotlight PA — it’s Matt Hackenburg, a Northampton County engineer — but she doesn’t think it really matters.
“I know he won’t win,” she said. “But at least my vote didn’t go towards one or the other.”
Naulty doesn’t have a similar dilemma about the U.S. Senate race. She plans to vote for Oz.
Shawn Bastian, Lycoming County
Shawn Bastian is a registered Republican who voted for Trump in 2016 and in 2020.
But this year, the 30-year-old father of two says he will likely vote for Shapiro for governor.
Bastian, who does traffic utility maintenance for the city of Williamsport in Lycoming County, says he finds Mastriano to be too extreme. He was “turned off” by reports that Mastriano paid to promote himself on Gab, a far-right social media platform often labeled as a haven for hate speech. (Mastriano’s account was removed shortly after that.)
As a union member, Bastian prioritizes electing people who oppose making Pennsylvania a right-to-work state — a policy that allows workers to opt out of paying fees to a labor union in their workplace. Shapiro is backed by both public and private labor unions, while Mastriano has pledged support for right-to-work laws.
“That’s one of the bigger things for me,” said Bastian, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “I feel like labor unions are coming back, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.”
The costs of living and inflation also concern Bastian, who says he’s buying the same groceries he did six months ago but paying far more for them.
Bastian is the type of voter Republicans need on their side: people who hail from smaller, traditionally Republican-leaning counties and who will come out in high numbers to blunt Democratic gains in other, more vote-rich areas of the state. In 2020, nearly 70% of Lycoming County’s voters cast ballots for Trump, and 66% of its voters backed the Republican who challenged Shapiro for a second term as the state’s attorney general.
But this year, Bastian says, he may not even cast a vote in the U.S. Senate race at the top of the ticket. Neither Oz nor Fetterman speaks to his concerns.
“I would rather pick no one than pick someone I don’t really like,” he said.
Russell Poe, Mercer County
Russell Poe knows who he’s voting for — although he’s not entirely happy with the decision.
A longtime registered Republican, the 76-year-old retired dentist lives an hour south of Erie and has voted in nearly every election since returning home from Army service in 1969. But with the exception of a smattering of local GOP candidates, he hasn’t voted for a Republican in years.
Poe, who voted for former President Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections, says he dislikes how the Republican party has evolved.
Voting the party line, he says, is far less important to him than basing his decision on where candidates stand on the issues he cares about, including the economy and gun laws.
But his No. 1 priority, he said, is “not supporting Donald Trump” or candidates associated with the former president. That rules out Mastriano, who is endorsed by Trump and has propagated his unfounded claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Poe strongly opposes Trump. “I would have voted for Mickey Mouse or Richard Nixon before I voted for Trump,” he said.
Poe sayhe has heard enough about Mastriano to know that he paid for charter buses to transport Trump supporters from Pennsylvania — including from his area in Mercer County — to Washington, D.C., for the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection. In his mind, that fact alone makes Mastriano unsuitable to serve in the state’s highest office.
Though not entirely supportive of Shapiro’s platform, Poe has found one issue on which Shapiro is closer to his line of thinking: strengthening gun laws. He supports an assault weapons ban, and favors candidates who don’t automatically default to rejecting changes to current laws.
“I was in the military, I fired those things, I know what they do,” he said.
Shapiro has said he supports stricter gun safety measures, including enacting a universal background checks law, as well as a “red flag” law. The latter would allow for the temporary confiscation of firearms from people deemed a risk to themselves and others by a judge.
Mastriano, on the other hand, has painted himself as a staunch supporter of gun rights, and has been endorsed in the past by Gun Owners of America, a self-described “no compromise” gun rights group.
Poe is more conservative on the issue of abortion than Shapiro is — the Montgomery County Democrat has pledged to veto any legislation seeking to limit access to abortion in the state. Current state law allows abortions to be performed up to about the 24th week of a pregnancy or longer if a pregnant person’s life is in danger.
Mastriano has called for banning abortions at six weeks, without exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the pregnant person.
Poe says he has vacillated over the years on how he feels about abortion, but firmly believes that there should be exceptions.
The new voter
Laura Ozuna, Northampton County
Until 2020, Laura Ozuna, a 36-year-old resident of the Lehigh Valley, didn’t vote.
A native of Puerto Rico who came to Pennsylvania seven years ago, Ozuna registered to vote in 2020 only because a Spanish-speaking canvasser approached her and helped her through the process.
Now Ozuna is a paid canvasser for the same group that helped her register, Make the Road PA, and helps other monolingual individuals in her region’s growing Latino population head to the polls.
“The only way we’re going to create change and the most powerful way we can create change is by making our voices heard and exercising the right to vote is one way,” Ozuna said through a translator.
She declines to say who she will vote for, but she wants the next governor to do two things: Protect abortion access and improve schooling.
She especially wants to see more tax money go to public schools, as well as safer schools, “especially with all the shootings that have happened recently,” Ozuna said.
Reco Southerland, Dauphin County
Since moving from North Carolina to Pennsylvania in 2020, Reco Southerland hasn’t found a community in the Keystone State.
Maybe it’s the pandemic sapping people of their desire to meet others, he says. Or maybe it’s a growing lack of kindness he’s sensed while out and about. Either way, he feels adrift in his new home.
“I can meet my neighbors online, but Nextdoor doesn’t get together and meet people in person,” said Southerland, a 49-year-old Dauphin County educator. “That’s not a community; that’s the internet.”
This detachment has carried over into politics. Southerland, a Democrat, was a regular voter in his old home below the Mason-Dixon line, but he hasn’t voted since moving to Pennsylvania.
He isn’t sure what his new community needs, he says. Plus, his main issues — like addressing racism, homelessness, and food insecurity — seem to have taken a back seat to abortion and LGBTQ rights, which he calls “issues of the day.”
Finally, the flood of negative advertising, particularly in the U.S. Senate race, has turned him off from voting.
“I don’t know too much about the candidates running. I see the commercials, I see the advertising. Everyone has something bad to say about somebody else. You don’t know who to trust,” Southerland said.
If he finds an in-person event to hear directly from a candidate, he may still vote. But otherwise, Southerland says he doesn’t plan to cast a ballot in November.
Lyne Daniels, Erie County
Lyne Daniels, a 55-year-old municipal manager from Erie County, is a registered independent and proud of it.
She voted for former President Bill Clinton twice, registered briefly as a Democrat to vote against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary, and then backed Obama twice (She regrets those latter votes, she says, but still feels he was “much better” than Mitt Romney.)
Heading into 2022, she plans to vote for Mastriano for governor, mostly because he’s “not Josh Shapiro.”
Shapiro is progressive and isn’t “hard on crime,” Daniels said. She also detests that he backed Wolf’s COVID-19 response, from the business closures to the mask mandates the Wolf administration implemented to help slow the spread of the disease.
“If that’s the kind of Gestapo that other people want to vote for, then you get what you vote for,” Daniels said.
However, she doesn’t like either party and says they spend too much time blaming each other for problems rather than solving them.
She lists the economy, immigration, and energy as her top priorities. She wants the government to spend less money — “they spend money like it’s water” — focus on the U.S.’s own borders versus those of foreign countries, and OK more oil drilling and pipelines.
A mother of two, she doesn’t place too much emphasis on social issues. Daniels identifies as “pro-choice,” but thinks people use abortion as a form of birth control.
“If you made it harder to access abortion, then there wouldn’t be as many as there are because people would think twice about opening their pants,” she said.
She also said she “wholeheartedly supports” the LGBTQ community, and believes that “what you do in your bedroom is your business.” But “don’t push it on to me, don’t push it on to my children,” she added.
One Democrat does have her vote this year, though — her state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro of Erie County, who she personally knows.
They don’t see eye to eye on every issue, but Daniels thinks Bizzarro accurately represents her swingy northwestern Pennsylvania district, which voted for Trump by five percentage points in 2016 and for President Joe Biden by two points in 2020.
Bizzarro, Daniels said, is the “hardest working legislator I have ever met in my life.”
Ilyas Shah, Bucks County
Ilyas Shah has one priority — getting the economy back on track.
“Right now America needs that,” said Shah, a 61-year-old businessman from Bensalem. “Boy have we been waiting for the economy to move.”
The father of four says he supports religious tolerance and scoffs at the idea of giving his preferred pronouns. However, while he’s sure to vote, he hasn’t finalized his picks for governor and the U.S. Senate.
A long-time Republican, Shah says he became disillusioned with the party under Trump and voted for Biden in 2020. Overall, he finds leadership lacking in both parties, and details a bipartisan list of politicians who’ve disappointed him that includes Trump, Clinton, and Obama.
The country, he added, is “up for grabs.” Just one bad choice “could take us into disaster, and Trump almost did,” he said.
He may vote for Oz because he’s willing “to go with the doctor who’s educated.” And he says he doesn’t know enough about Shapiro or Mastriano to decide between the two.
Shah says he wants a governor who spells out who they are and what they believe in, and who also “believes in American idealism.”
But who that will be for Shah remains to be seen.
Ambivalent big-city Democrats
Tamir Salahuddin, Philadelphia
Salahuddin plans to vote for both of the Democrats in this year’s big statewide races, but he’s not very excited.
He mostly feels ambivalent about this year’s candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, and says he has decided to go for Democrats because they seem like the least bad options. Shapiro is getting his vote because Mastriano is unacceptable, he says. “We can’t have him,” he said. And Salahuddin’s U.S. Senate choice comes down to his impression that Fetterman is “probably a better fit for Pennsylvania than Dr. Oz.”
Salahuddin is 44, lives in West Philadelphia, and works for the Internal Revenue Service. Black, politically engaged voters like him are often considered safe bets for the Democratic party — part of the core of its base of support. These voters are crucial in Pennsylvania right now, because turnout in population centers like Philadelphia plays a big part in determining which party wins statewide elections. But Salahuddin says he often feels like the party takes Black voters in cities for granted, and it bothers him.
He considers himself to be fiscally conservative, and said he thinks if the economic system gave “everybody a chance, a fair chance, then I think people would do good on their own.” But even though he often agrees with Republicans on economics, Salahuddin cannot usually bring himself to vote for the party’s candidates.
“There’s just so many other things attached to them,” he said. “Racism, bigotry, sexism. It makes it hard to vote for that stuff.”
He probably votes for Democrats “about 90% of the time,” he estimated. But there have been recent exceptions. He voted for Trump in 2016 because he thought the Republican “did a lot for minority business owners.” He flipped to Biden in 2020, mostly because he thought Trump’s handling of the pandemic was too chaotic and inconsistent.
Like his parents, Salahuddin grew up in Philadelphia. He has many family members and friends in the city, and while he’s a regular voter, he says he has peers who aren’t.
“There’s people who say their vote’s not going to matter,” he said. “Nothing’s going to change.”
Crystal Parker, Philadelphia
Crystal Parker, a 50-something-year-old (“That’s as close as you get,” she said) Philadelphian, makes the following observation about the GOP statewide ticket: They are “no Tom Wolf.”
Mastriano, who frequently attacks the outgoing governor for his COVID-19 response, would likely agree and take that as a compliment. But Parker doesn’t mean it in a good way.
Wolf “did as good a job as the federal government afforded him the opportunity to do” in responding to the pandemic, Parker said.
She gives him high marks for maintaining the state’s social safety net. In her view, Wolf’s actions ensured the millions of folks who fell on hard times received food stamps, rent rebates, and other entitlements on time and without gaps.
“I think if there was more to access for more of us, he would have tried to get,” Parker added.
She isn’t jazzed about either Shapiro or Fetterman, but she considers them better than the GOP alternatives. Her top issues as a voter are protecting women’s rights — in particular, abortion access — and equal funding for public education.
“I feel like abortion rights shouldn’t even be a conversation, because they ain’t your business,” Parker said.
In the past, Parker has voted for Republican candidates who have stood up for women’s issues such as abortion access. But none of the candidates on the GOP ticket meets her standards, she says.
Oz in particular drew her disdain. She does not consider him a Pennsylvanian.
“You a Jersey boy. You should have went to Jersey and tried to run,” Parker said. “But you couldn’t win over Jersey, so you came over here.”
Democrats who have voted for the GOP — but not this time
Fannie Colaiaco, Pike County
Fannie Colaiaco has lived through wars, protests, and momentous periods of civil unrest. But she never imagined she would see the country plunge into the near-daily turmoil she says she has seen over the past six years.
The 96-year-old is a registered Democrat and retired music teacher living in Pike County, which borders New York and New Jersey. Republican registrations dominate in the area. She says she is blessed to still be able to live in her home, which is decorated with pictures of her three children, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. But she worries about the world they are inheriting.
School shootings, the rising cost of living, a pandemic, and the chipping away at democratic ideals and institutions all have created complex chaos that is difficult to navigate, she said.
Colaiaco says she cast a ballot for a Republican once (for former President Dwight D. Eisenhower) and would be willing to do so again. But she believes political leaders should be intelligent, courageous, and willing to speak up for what’s right, qualities she doesn’t see in candidates who align themselves with Trump.
“I really can’t talk to people when they want to bring him up,” Colaiaco said of the former president. “It physically bothers me that people can stand by this man that has created such chaos in the country. I’ve always been what I consider a lady, and I am not going to start to degrade myself by using words I’ve never used. I wasn’t raised that way. So I don’t say anything.”
She will vote for Shapiro for governor, she says. She doesn’t like that Mastriano and other candidates have cast doubt over the integrity of elections, which she believes are secure and produce accurate results. The state in recent years has ushered in new voting machines that produce voter-verifiable paper records. It also required enhanced, post-election audits. County officials too have said they inspect and test every voting machine before an election, and that their machines are equipped with locks that have tamper-evident seals.
And if she were younger, she says she would march with people rallying for the right to access an abortion.
“I do believe a life is sacred,” said Colaiaco. “But there are times in a woman’s life say, God forbid, if she was raped or there was incest or there are going to be major problems with the baby. That decision is up to that woman and not me. I believe that in my heart and soul.”
John Churnetski, Luzerne County
John Churnetski lives in one of the state’s most-watched voting hotspots: Luzerne County.
Once a Democratic stronghold, in 2016 the county was among a handful that made headlines when its largely white, working-class voting base turned out in large numbers for Trump, and helped propel him to a narrow victory in Pennsylvania.
The county again voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2020 despite the edge Democrats hold in registrations there. Republican officials hope that the trend will continue into this year’s midterm elections, while Democrats seek to capture back some of those disaffected voters.
Churnetski, 81, a registered Democrat who owned an architecture and engineering company in Wilkes-Barre for 40 years, says he will not be choosing any of the Republicans at the top of the ballot.
He has voted for Republicans before — including former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — but he believes Mastriano, regardless of party affiliation, is intractable and unwilling to listen to the opinions of others.
“He might as well be a dictator with that kind of attitude,” he said. “I look for candidates who are open-minded, and are willing to listen and come to conclusions that are based on fact.”
Though he plans to vote for Fetterman, he says that choice was not as easy. Churnetski thought U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb — a Marine Corps veteran who represents the Pittsburgh suburbs — was the better candidate and voted for him in the primary this past spring.
Read our complete coverage, plus key dates, campaign finance data, sample ballots & more at our Election Center 2022 website.
Spotlight on the Issues: Where Mastriano and Shapiro stand on:
More issue analyses will be published in the coming weeks.
A complete listing of Spotlight PA voter guides:
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