Steel Country Democrats Who Backed Trump Weigh Party Loyalty In 2018

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A supporter of Donald Trump holds a sign during a March 2016 rally in Vienna, Ohio. In the Mahoning Valley of Eastern Ohio, many traditionally Democratic voters switched sides to vote for Trump. Gene J. Puskar/AP hide caption

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A supporter of Donald Trump holds a sign during a March 2016 rally in Vienna, Ohio. In the Mahoning Valley of Eastern Ohio, many traditionally Democratic voters switched sides to vote for Trump.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

When the phone rings at the Republican Party headquarters in Mahoning County, Ohio, a 77-year-old retired hairdresser and former lifelong Democrat answers.

Connie Kessler is a recent GOP convert with a religious-like zeal to help her hometown elect more local Republicans. Sometimes she answers calls from voters; other times she updates the database — she does the kind of odds jobs she says she used to do for local Democrats.

If Donald Trump hadn’t run for president, Kessler says she’d probably still be a Democrat.

“He’s the one that turned me,” she says at her makeshift reception desk near a giant cut-out of the president, with his signature thumbs-up gesture. “When I walked in here to sign up as a volunteer, I was a Democrat,” she said. “I don’t want Democrat next to my name anymore.”

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Connie Kessler, 77, says she voted for President Obama in 2008, but after Trump’s election she has become a Republican. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

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Connie Kessler, 77, says she voted for President Obama in 2008, but after Trump’s election she has become a Republican.

Asma Khalid/NPR

Like thousands of people in the Mahoning Valley, a region midway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Kessler left the Democratic Party and voted for Trump in 2016.

A similar story played out across the Midwest where white, working class families in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin helped propel Trump into the White House. But the question remains: Were these Obama/Trump voters one-off Trump supporters or are they the newest Republicans? 2018 offers the first hint of whether Trump’s election was an aberration or a major realignment of the parties.

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The Mahoning Valley has been loyal Democratic turf for generations; it’s old steel country full of labor union members, but in the last presidential election many people abandoned the party at the national level. Trumbull County, which President Obama had won by 22 percentage points in 2012, went for a Republican president for the first time since 1972.

And the initial evidence, based on more than a dozen interviews with Obama/Trump voters and disillusioned Democrats across the Mahoning Valley, is mixed. Some like Kessler say they’re ashamed of modern day Democrats and no longer want to be a part of the party. Others insist they’re still loyal to the party and will grab a Democratic ballot in the Ohio primary this May.

Hillary Clinton did far worse than Barack Obama in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley counties, long thought of as a Democratic stronghold. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

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In 2016, there was a massive discrepancy between national and local Democratic performance. Even though Trump won Trumbull County by 22 percentage points, Democrats won every county-level race. Likewise, in neighboring Mahoning County, Clinton pulled off a slim victory — 25 points behind Barack Obama’s 2012 victory there — but again local Democrats won many races. In fact, the Democratic congressman from the region, Tim Ryan, won reelection with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

Voters’ values

Many in the Mahoning Valley say that divide is evidence that the national Democratic Party has moved too far left – prioritizing “transgenders” and “immigration,” as multiple people said, at the expense of the economy.

At the Yankee Kitchen restaurant near Youngstown, Jeff Zatchok, a former public school teacher and administrator, said he voted for President Obama in 2008, but chose Trump in 2016 — and he’s “100 percent” satisfied with the president.

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“Either my views or the Democratic Party’s views changed over the course of those years,” said Jeff Zatchok, who voted for President Obama but now sees himself as more of a Republican. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

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“Either my views or the Democratic Party’s views changed over the course of those years,” said Jeff Zatchok, who voted for President Obama but now sees himself as more of a Republican.

Asma Khalid/NPR

“Either my views or the Democratic Party views changed,” he said, in between bites of egg on a recent morning. “To me, the Democrats used to be kind of ‘middle America,’ and it seems to me they’ve gotten away from that.”

These days, he feels more like a Republican.

Even the chair of the Mahoning County Democratic Party admits his national party is out of sync with local voters, and his congressman, Tim Ryan, agrees.

“People whether they’re white, black, brown, gay, straight — they want a job, they want high wages and a secure pension and secure healthcare. That’s it,” Ryan told NPR. “And I’m trying to pound this message into everybody’s head.”

Democrats in the Mahoning Valley are more conservative than coastal Democrats on cultural issues like religion, abortion and immigration.

“I think this country — our country — has no respect or morals” said Lisa Moore, a retired school teacher, flanked by a giant painting of the Last Supper on her dining room wall.

She says it also feels like Democrats these days prefer “illegals” over U.S. citizens.

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The former local Democratic congressman in this region, Jim Traficant, took a hard-line stance on immigration once saying that “anybody that jumps the fence shouldn’t be made a citizen, they should be thrown out.” But there’s little room for such a position in the modern-day Democratic party.

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McDonald, Ohio, in Trumbull County was a “company town” created by the Carnegie Steel Corporation. The steel industry used to employ thousands of people in the region, but most of those jobs have disappeared. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

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McDonald, Ohio, in Trumbull County was a “company town” created by the Carnegie Steel Corporation. The steel industry used to employ thousands of people in the region, but most of those jobs have disappeared.

Asma Khalid/NPR

“We’ve had complete devastation in this area for the last 20 to 30 years,” said Scott Seitz, an elected Democratic official who crossed party lines to vote for Trump. “We didn’t leave our Democratic Party. Our Democratic Party left us.”

In 2000, Seitz lost his job at a steel mill. And so he started a gutter cleaning business that he now maintains with his sons. In February 2017, he got a job back in the mills making titanium for F-35 jets, and he credits the president, in part, for finalizing the contract that led to an increase in hiring at that local plant.

“He spoke to me about jobs,” said Seitz.

Seitz knows the local steel mills will never return to their old glory, but he’s optimistic that the steel and aluminum tariffs the president is ordering will help his region.

“It is certainly long overdue for the struggling steel industry throughout Ohio and the Rustbelt area,” he wrote in an email.

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Seitz acknowledges China may strike back with more tariffs, but for now he’s trying to remain optimistic because, to him, it seems the President is trying to level the playing field to help American workers.

“Rebelling” among Democrats

Around the region, there is little evidence of buyer’s remorse for Trump.

For some, Democratic criticism of the President is only further justification to reject the party as a whole.

Lisa Moore, the retired school teacher, said she plans to vote Republican all down the ballot.

“I’m worried if the Democrats get in, they get a majority, they’ll try to impeach him,” she said. “So, as long as he’s in office, I’m gonna vote all straight Republican.”

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Lisa Moore and her mother Frances Kimpton both say they were lifelong Democrats prior to Donald Trump’s election, but now they intend to vote for only Republicans in the 2018 midterms. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

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Lisa Moore and her mother Frances Kimpton both say they were lifelong Democrats prior to Donald Trump’s election, but now they intend to vote for only Republicans in the 2018 midterms.

Asma Khalid/NPR

Her 76-year-old mother Frances Kimpton, a loyal Democrat until 2016, nodded in agreement. “I’ll never vote for a Democrat as long as I live,” she said. “I don’t like them anymore … the Democrats have been fighting him.”

But not all Obama/Trump voters are willing to entirely forsake the party because of their loyalty to the President. Some say, even if they would vote for Trump again, they’ll vote for Democrats at the local level.

John Schultz, a former Democratic precinct committeeman, voted for Trump in 2016 — the first time he cast a ballot for a Republican candidate in his 66 years.

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John Schultz, a lifelong Democrat who voted for Trump in 2016, said his region isn’t realigning — it’s “rebelling” against the Democratic Party. Asma Khalid/NPR hide caption

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John Schultz, a lifelong Democrat who voted for Trump in 2016, said his region isn’t realigning — it’s “rebelling” against the Democratic Party.

Asma Khalid/NPR

“I was born and raised a Democrat, lifelong Democrat,” he said, eager to point out that he’s not a Republican – and still thinks George W. Bush was the “ultimate failure” as a president. “(But) the national Democratic Party has become disconnected and alienated from Middle America.”

He says local Democrats feel neglected by Washington and figured they didn’t have much to lose by voting for Trump, a Republican who spoke like a Democrat on trade.

“I don’t think it’s realigning,” Schultz said. “I do think this area is maybe rebelling.”

Still, he insists he’s a Democrat who will for Democratic candidates in the Ohio primary.

“It’s in many ways ingrained into people that they’re Democrats,” said Paul Sracic, chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Youngstown State University. He’s not sure that voters, regardless of Trump, have changed their overall ideological orientation. “I don’t think they feel like they have a real home in either political party.”

As for Scott Seitz, he plans to vote for fellow Democrats in 2018, but he’s still yearning for more: “I hope that the Democrats in the 2020 election have a candidate that appeals to us. And we can go back to being full-fledged Democrat.”