With only eight days remaining before the Nov. 3 general election, Valley voters remain entrenched and steadfast in their support of either President Donald Trump, the Republican incumbent seeking a second term, or former Vice President Joe Biden.
But what distinguishes this election cycle more than most are some high profile lifelong Republicans who have worked for and supported such stalwart political figures as Ronald Reagan and John McCain, doing what they once thought impossible: Voting for a Democrat, Biden.
The Daily Item, along with newsrooms throughout parent company CNHI’s 22-states of operation, interviewed residents on a wide range of topics as part of the ongoing “Pulse of the Voters” report, a nationwide project published over the last three years, culminating in the Nov. 3 election.
John Meckley, 50, of Milton, is the former chairman of the Northumberland County Republican Committee and is proud to have been the Republican nominee for Congress in the former PA-6 Congressional District.
He is voting for Biden because he believes Trump has abandoned core Republican values.
"Character counts," he said recently, in a phone interview. "I expect a president to be a statesman, to epitomize what it is about America that is exceptional, to treat others — especially those with whom he disagrees — with respect and, above all, to tell the truth. I support traditional, core Republican values of respect for the Constitution and institutional norms, a smaller government, lower national debt, a strong defense and strong relationships with our allies."
Trump, Meckley contends, "has proven himself unfit for office and presents a danger to our democracy. While I may disagree with many of Joe Biden’s policy positions, we will have another day to debate those differences."
It’s more important, Meckley said, "to give our party and our nation a chance to heal. And that can only happen without Trump. I don’t expect to agree with everything Joe Biden does, but I believe he is a fair and open-minded moderate who will respect our Constitution, work with Republicans to begin to unite our country, and restore a sense of normalcy and decency."
Like Meckley, you couldn't find a more conservative Red-state voter than Jim Tomlinson, of Lewisburg, 69.
Tomlinson, an Army veteran, worked as a teen on the Reagan campaign and was an executive in the Pennsylvania campaign to elect John McCain in his run for president. He worked on a digital communication policy for the Center of Rural PA and the Office of Information Tech during the Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker gubernatorial administrations.
On a warm, early fall afternoon outside a church in Lewisburg, he explained why he, who has only ever voted Republican, is voting for Biden.
"I will vote for Joe Biden," he said. "I believe Joe Biden is a good and decent man and I have confidence he would try to have a government of national unities, something that Donald Trump isn't capable of.
"We need a president who has character, not someone who is one," he said.
Defending the president
Republican Stan Zellers, 73, of Lewisburg, vehemently disagrees with fellow Republicans Meckley and Tomlinson. He is a strong supporter of Donald Trump and has been since day one.
In all respects, and about all subjects, Zellers speaks in calm, quiet tones. But about those Republicans who are voting against Trump — and particularly those who side with the Lincoln Project— there is no equivocation. [Established in late 2019, the Lincoln Project is a conservative super PAC that aims to “defeat President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box” in 2020.]
One afternoon in late September Zellers sat in his living room talking politics.
"Traitors," he said of those Republicans voting for Biden. "I think they are people who believe their way of life is threatened ... they feel like Donald Trump is a threat. And he is. You hear the phrase 'The New World Order.' I think Donald Trump is the New World Order.
"I know a lot of people, including me, sometimes take exception to things Donald Trump says, or the way that he says them. I don't care. What I care about is results, and he is getting results. He is the only president in my lifetime, who has kept his promises. And even to this day, he is still doing things for America."
Zellers cited as foreign diplomatic achievements Trump's trip to North Korea. More importantly, he highlights the two Mideast deals between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. "When was the last time there was a Mideast peace deal? So, he has done something about the tensions in the Middle East.
"That's why I am still a firm supporter of Donald Trump," Zellers continued. "To me, he is an exceptional president. A lot of politicians want the issue; they don't want solutions. Because if you can keep the issue alive you keep people stirred up. Trump wants solutions. Give him a problem, he is going to find a solution. For me, results count."
Myra Baker, of Mount Carmel, is as strong a Trump supporter today as she was in 2016, although she deplores his constant tweeting. "I look at his accomplishments more than his tweets. Before the pandemic the economy was thriving and getting better. Even coming out of this pandemic, you can see jobs returning. He is very pro-business, and jobs count with me."
Baker, who works in sales and is able to do so from her home, said she'd never vote for Biden. "I don't think he's a bad man," she said. "But what has he done in all his years in politics? Trump has delivered on many of his promises, and when he hasn't, it is because of the Democrats blocking him at every turn."
Things like making our allies pay their fair share, the destruction of ISIS, and nominating conservative justices for vacancies on the Supreme Court (Baker is pro-life) will be Trump's legacies, she said. She also thinks the national press has treated him horribly," since before he was sworn in. "He's not a polished politician and never has been. People knew that going in, why were they surprised these last four years?"
Shannon "Shay" Eaton, 21, of Middleburg, is a junior at Susquehanna University and she will vote as a Democrat because their party's candidate is most closely aligned with her values.
However, she cautioned, "I feel that older Democrats do not embrace the actual progressive reality of where we need to be at this moment. I wanted to see Elizabeth Warren nominated. I belong to a demographic majority as a white person, but I am voting for the benefit of minorities who've traditionally been discounted. I am a utilitarian ethicist and I will vote for the greater good every time."
Shay Eaton said she will vote for Biden, "but not without disappointment," she said, "only because he is a stepping stone toward the more progressive vision we need so badly to bring to the world."
For Lewisburg resident Sam Pearson, 50, there is only one choice on the ballot — the slate of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
"There are no credible reports of base, illegal, or even simply unprofessional behavior on the part of either Democrat on the ticket," Pearson said. "The same cannot be said of the Republican candidate. The substitution of rumor, disinformation, and even foreign propaganda and conspiracy theories for reliable news has twisted perceptions and undermined rational discourse in this election."
Who benefits from chaos and confusion? Pearson asks. "Not democracy and not honest leadership. The more disinformation is being pushed about the Democratic candidates, the more evidence that offers that people not committed to democracy are worried. Even the FBI has released a PSA (public service announcement) warning about malicious foreign agents promoting disinformation about the election, calling mail-in ballots into doubt and undermining the will to fully count all legal ballots. Crazily, people wonder whether the official PSA is itself disinformation."
The economy before and during COVID
Republicans point to the economy, pre-pandemic, as one of Trump's strengths.
Baker, Zellers and Martus, all Republicans, give him high grades for how he has handled the economy.
Unemployment went down to record low rates, said Baker, "and I give him credit for that. Even after the pandemic hit and millions of Americans were laid off, the economy has been coming back, people are returning, mostly, to their jobs. I think that would be a priority in a second Trump term."
Trump has unleashed economic growth in America "like I have never seen," Zellers said. "I will give Obama credit. When they inherited the economy in 2008, we were in freefall. It was bad. But they also fostered a very anemic recovery. Donald Trump arrived on the scene and started to cut regulations, red tape and there was record after record in the stock market. There have been record lows of Black unemployment, Asian unemployment, Latino unemployment, female unemployment. He built an economy that everybody was benefiting from."
Hands down, Trump has been the best president for the economy, Zellers believes.
Martus supports the president's efforts to support American businesses during the pandemic.
There are things that Trump has done that people think has been right, Tomlinson said, although other Republicans, "Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, would have done much the same thing without the total mess that he's brought along with it. Many things President Trump says are good about the economy are simply not as good as he claims. The U.S. trade deficit is worse. Wages have not increased significantly. They increased faster under Obama than under Trump."
Sometimes it seems the president just wants to throw out regulations for the sake of throwing out regulations, Tomlinson said. "The EPA was proposed by Richard Nixon. The Republican Party has a history of protecting the environment that goes back to Theodore Roosevelt. I just don't see Trump having an understanding of that."
Meckley gives Trump a mixed grade, saying he can’t take credit for the state of the economy in January or February without taking responsibility for the state of the economy now.
"The pandemic and the economy are linked," Meckley said. "His failure of leadership and mishandling of the pandemic have resulted in a stalled recovery and a much weaker economy now."
There are good people who serve this country, Meckley said. "Whether they are elected or whether they serve as professionals. In 2016, as a Republican, I was told my party was taking a principled position that you do not appoint a Supreme Court justice so close to the election, and that was 11 months. Four years later, my party, the Republican Party is going to rush through a nomination weeks before an election.
"I hope young people will realize that if they get involved, maybe they can change things and come to know there is some believability when people take positions politically," he continued. "For me, it is not about who will be nominated. It is about what I think is a totally blatant political move that disappoints me deeply. If the principle in 2016 was one thing it should be the same principle today."
Baker is more cynical. "I think if the situation were reversed, Democrats would be doing the same thing. It's power politics. I don't like it, but that's how it is. Maybe that's why I don't think much of Congress. They're all phonies."
The notion of requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions is now universally accepted and expected by the public, Meckley said.
"Trump, however, is using the issue to mislead voters," he said. "While he claims he wants to preserve coverage for pre-existing conditions, he has not shared any new health care plan that would do so and instead his administration is now arguing before the Supreme Court to eliminate the ACA (Affordable Care Act) and its protections for pre-existing conditions."
The middle of a pandemic that is not being effectively brought under control and which is showing signs of leaving a fair proportion of those who survive infection with long-term health impacts is really not the time to be trying to rip health care away from tens of millions of people, Pearson said. "If anything, we should be expanding health care access; that would be one of the strategies for better containing the virus because it could simplify access to testing and treatment."
But Zellers takes the president at his word.
Trump has always said that people with pre existing conditions should be insured, he said. "I know he would not abolish the ACA without having a replacement. That would be totally foolish. He is not going to just dump, I don't know how many millions of people out on the street with no insurance. Nobody is that inhumane or foolish."
Law and order
Baker, a Republican, supports the Black Lives Matter movement, but not the "hooligans" that have looted and burned during protests.
"Yes, law and order is an issue for me," she said. "A very important issue. The protests around here, in the Valley, are peaceful. In big cities, there are always a few thugs who are out to make trouble. I support Trump's wanting to clamp down on those who destroy property."
President Trump has made "law and order" a slogan, Pearson said, "but has at the same time undermined actual law and order. He cheers for authoritarians around the world and at home he supports those who break laws and take the law into their own hands. He famously cheers on militia types as 'good people.'"
Militias are not legally defined entities in the United States, Pearson said. "Random people showing up dressed in quasi-military garb, carrying weapons of war, are gangs. They are the opposite of law and order; they are lawless."
Now go out and vote
This election is a referendum on President Trump, Baker said, ending the conversation. It was minutes before the first presidential debate, and she wanted to hang up the phone. "That's the way it is with all presidents running for a second term," she sighed. "Thumbs up or down. I like Trump. He'll get my vote. Some of my neighbors don't like the president. I don't hate them for that. They have Biden signs on their lawns. I have Trump 2020. I just say, go out and vote."
Despite the challenges we face, Meckley said, "I have tremendous hope for the future of our country. And I have faith that, for the people of our Valley, character still counts and the truth still matters, that we still value principled leadership and that we have the clarity of mind and the courage to see — and cast our votes to remove — the threat to our democracy that Trump presents."
This is an important time to take a stand for Democracy and do our part for our American values of justice, honesty and integrity, Pearson added. "We should all be on board with making sure all eligible voters are able to vote and that all legal ballots cast by Election Day are counted."