CHARLEROI, Pa.—Angela LeJohn is 49, has worked at a local energy company for nine years, and loves it. A registered Democrat, she never once voted for a Republican and never expected to entertain such a thought—not even in a local election—until this year.
“The short of it is that I am looking at this election through self-preservation,” she explained. “I love my job, I love that I only live three miles from work, I love that who I work for contributes to a stable life, and I love that my community is holding on because of the trickle effect Lee Supply Company’s impact has on the region.”
LeJohn will vote for Donald Trump for president and for incumbent U.S. Senator Pat Toomey in November, she candidly admits, not because she loves either Republican candidate but because “they have my back.”
She was among more than 60 employees who attended an informal voter-registration effort conducted by Secure Energy for America, a non-partisan trade association that has visited energy vendors and suppliers in key counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, and Virginia. It hopes to mobilize energy-industry workers, along with their relatives and neighbors, to vote in November. Officially, the effort is non-partisan. Yet for most energy workers in Pennsylvania, voting to preserve their industry means voting for Trump and Toomey.
The registration drive gets to the heart of the election in Western Pennsylvania. Democrats in these small communities want to hold on to their way of life; they feel their communities have as much value as those of their more-cosmopolitan Democratic cousins, and they cannot reconcile themselves to a national Democratic Party that they feel is working against them. They are the voters whose simple motivation to vote outside of the party they were born into has fallen under the radar of the national press and the polls.
But the energy industry has noticed. “This kind of endeavor is terrifically impactful with voters,” said Ron Sicchitano, the Democratic Party’s chairman here in Washington County. “I’ve got to hand it to them.” Sicchitano, a coal miner, says anti-coal statements by President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have had a “tremendously devastating” impact on voters in a county that has been reliably Democratic in the past.
“My main objective is to get as many of my voters out so that I can keep the margins down in the county,” he said. “Trump is going to win [the county], he just can’t win that big or a big turnout in this county will chip away at Hillary Clinton’s wins in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.” He feels that the national party is running away from energy voters and southwestern Pennsylvania Democrats; he confesses to being unsure who his reliable voters are anymore, because so many of Washington County’s registered Democrats could vote Republican in November.
In the 2000 presidential election, Washington County went strongly Democrat; it gave 53.2 percent of its vote to then-Vice President Al Gore, and only 44 percent to the Republican, then-Governor George W. Bush of Texas.
By 2004, when climate change and cap-and-trade became the national Democratic Party’s driving narratives, John Kerry barely won the county, with just 552 votes more than Bush.
In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board that “if somebody wants to build a coal-fired power plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them.” Washington County voters abandoned their Democratic voting tradition that fall and chose John McCain over Obama. They did so again in 2012, choosing Republican Mitt Romney. What’s different this time, Sicchitano, said, is the intensity of people’s feelings: “This time it really is personal for these voters.”