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The Battle for Blue-Collar White Voters Raging in Biden’s Birthplace

SCRANTON, Pa. — The fate of the Democratic Party in northeastern Pennsylvania lies in the hands of people like Steve Papp.

A 30-year veteran carpenter, he describes his job almost poetically as “hanging out with your brothers, building America.” But there has been a harder labor in his life of late: selling his fellow carpenters, iron workers and masons on a Democratic Party that he sees as the protector of a “union way of life” but that they see as being increasingly out of step with their cultural values.

“The guys aren’t hearing the message,” Mr. Papp said.

Perhaps no place in the nation offers a more symbolic and consequential test of whether Democrats can win back some of the white working-class vote than Pennsylvania — and particularly the state’s northeastern corner, the birthplace of President Biden, where years of economic decline have scarred the coal-rich landscape. This region is where a pivotal Senate race could be decided, where two seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs and where a crucial governorship hangs in the balance.

A highway sign outside Scranton, Pa.
Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Sitting in the Scranton carpenters’ union hall, where Democratic lawn signs leaned up against the walls, Mr. Papp said that he often brought stickers to the job site for those he converted, but that he had recently been giving away fewer than he would like. He ticked through what he feels he has been up against. Talk radio. Social media. The Fox News megaphone. “Misinformation and lies,” as he put it, about the Black Lives Matter movement and the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

“It’s about cultural issues and social issues,” Mr. Papp lamented. “People don’t even care about their economics. They want to hate.”

Republicans counter that Democratic elites are the ones alienating the working class by advocating a “woke” cultural agenda and by treating them as deplorables. And they also argue that the current economy overseen by Democrats has been the issue pushing voters toward the right.

The stakes are far higher than one corner of one state in one election.

White blue-collar voters are a large and crucial constituency in a number of top Senate battlegrounds this year, including in Wisconsin, Nevada, New Hampshire and Ohio. And the need for Democrats to lose by less is already an urgent concern for party strategists heading into 2024, when Donald J. Trump, who accelerated the movement of blue-collar voters of all races away from Democrats, has signaled he plans to run again.

Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

One study from Pew Research Center showed that as recently as 2007, white voters without a college degree were about evenly divided in their party affiliations. But by 2020, Republicans had opened up an advantage of 59 percent over Democrats’ 35 percent.

“You can’t get destroyed,” Christopher Borick, the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Pennsylvania, said of the task in front of Democrats. “Cutting into Republican gains in the Trump era among white working-class voters is essential.”

There are, quite simply, a lot of white voters without college degrees in America. Another Pew study found that such voters accounted for 42 percent of all voters in the 2020 presidential election. And, by some estimates, they could make up nearly half the vote in Pennsylvania this year.

Luzerne County, just south of Scranton, had been reliably Democratic for years and years. Then, suddenly, in 2016, Mr. Trump won Luzerne in a nearly 20-point landslide. He won it again in 2020, but by 5 points fewer. There are Obama-Trump voters here, and Obama-Trump-Biden voters, too. The region may have tacked to the right politically in recent years, but it is still a place where the phrase “Irish Catholic Democrat” was long treated as almost a single word, and where it might be more possible to nudge at least some ancestral Democrats back toward the party.

Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Scranton, a former coal town nestled in the scenic Wyoming Valley, has become synonymous with this voting bloc. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who hopes to become the next House speaker, visited the region this fall to unveil the Republican agenda, and both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump traveled to the area for events kicking off the fall campaign.

This year, the Pennsylvania Senate race looms especially large.

The Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, was seemingly engineered for the task of appealing to the working class. A bald and burly man with a political persona that revolves around Carhartt sweatshirts and tattoos, Mr. Fetterman has vowed from the start to compete in even the reddest corners of Pennsylvania. He is running against Mehmet Oz, a wealthy, out-of-state television celebrity who, according to polls, has been viewed skeptically from the start by the Republican base, and who talked of buying crudités at the grocery in a widely ridiculed video.

Yet local Democrats said Mr. Fetterman was still facing an uphill climb among white working-class voters in the region, even before his halting debate performance as he recovers from a stroke. For those Democrats concerned about competing for the state’s biggest voting bloc, the success or failure of Mr. Fetterman’s candidacy has become an almost existential question: If not him and here, then who and where?

Mr. Fetterman’s strategy to cut into Republican margins in red counties is displayed on his lawn signs: “Every county. Every vote.” But Republicans have worked relentlessly to undercut the blue-collar image Mr. Fetterman honed as the former mayor of Braddock, a downtrodden former steel town just outside Pittsburgh.

Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

“It’s a costume,” Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, said in one segment last month. Republicans have highlighted Mr. Fetterman’s Harvard degree, his middle-class suburban upbringing, the financial support he received from his parents into his 40s and, most recently, a barrage of advertising that has cast him as a soft-on-crime liberal.

Both sides are targeting voters like Chris Tigue, a 39-year-old who runs a one-man painting company and lives in Dunmore, a town bordering Scranton known for its enormous landfill. Mr. Tigue, a registered Republican, has gone on a political journey that may seem uncommon in most of the country but is more familiar here.

He voted twice for Barack Obama. Then he voted twice for Donald Trump.

As Mr. Tigue sat outside Roosevelt Beer Garden, a watering hole where the portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt on the wall was a reminder of the area’s Democratic heritage, he explained that Mr. Fetterman had won him back, not just because of his working class “curb appeal,” but because of his stances on abortion and medical cannabis.

Mr. Tigue said he was voting for Mr. Fetterman knowing that Mr. Fetterman would probably support the president’s economic agenda in the Senate, a prospect he called “a little scary.” But he said he was looking past that fact. “I’m focusing on the person,” he said.

Justin Taylor, the mayor of nearby Carbondale, is another Obama-Trump voter. Elected as a 25-year-old Democrat almost two decades ago, he endorsed Mr. Trump in 2020 and grew increasingly more Republican, just like the city he serves.

Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Today, he is adamantly opposed to Mr. Fetterman, calling him a liberal caricature and the kind of candidate the left thinks will appeal to the people of Carbondale, a shrinking town of under 10,000 people that was founded on anthracite coal. “I think, quite honestly, he is an empty Carhartt sweatshirt and the people who are working class in Pennsylvania see that,” Mr. Taylor said.

Mr. Taylor is still technically a registered Democrat, he said, but he feels judged by his own party. “The Democratic Party forces it down your throat,” he said, “and they make you a bigot, they make you a racist, they make you a homophobe if you don’t understand a concept, or you don’t 100 percent agree.”

Still, Mr. Taylor said he might not vote in the Senate race at all. Of his fellow Fetterman doubters, and of Oz skeptics, he asked, “Do they stay home? That becomes the big question.”

Northeastern Pennsylvania is also home to two bellwether House races with embattled Democratic incumbents.

One race features Representative Matt Cartwright, who is the rarest of political survivors — the only House Democrat nationwide running this year who held a district that Mr. Trump carried in both 2016 and 2020. The other includes Representative Susan Wild, who is defending a swing district that contains one of only two Pennsylvania counties that Mr. Biden flipped in 2020.

Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

To emphasize his cross-partisan appeal, Mr. Cartwright has run an ad this year featuring endorsements from one man in a Trump hat and another in a Biden shirt. In an interview, he said the area’s long-term economic downturn, which he traced to the free-trade deals of the 1990s, had caused many people to work multiple jobs, sapping morale and even affecting the region’s psyche.

“When something like that happens, who do you vote for?” Mr. Cartwright said. “You vote for the change candidate. And that’s what we saw a lot of. They voted for Obama twice. They voted for Trump twice. And my own view of it is when they vote that way, it’s a cry for help.”

Demographic shifts in politics happen in both directions. As Democrats have hemorrhaged white working-class voters, they have made large gains with college-educated white voters who were once the financial and electoral base of Republicans. In Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia suburbs have become strongly Democratic, while the state’s less populated areas have become more Republican.

Alexis McFarland Kelly, a 59-year-old former owner of a gourmet market near Scranton, is the kind of voter Democrats are newly winning over. Raised as a Republican, she was often warned by her father, a business owner, and her grandfather, a corporate vice president, of the excesses of labor and the left. But now, she is planning to vote for Mr. Fetterman.

Her biggest misgiving is the hoodie-wearing persona that might appeal to the working class. “I just wish he’d put a suit on once in a while,” she said.

Last year, she went to the local Department of Motor Vehicles and declared that she wanted to change her party registration to become a Democrat. The clerk was shocked. “She basically dropped her pen and said, ‘What?! A Democrat!’” Ms. Kelly recalled. “‘Everyone is going the other way.’”

Nina Feldman contributed reporting.

Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

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