Op-Ed: Schuylkill County and coal country keep Pa. politics unpredictable

Originally published in RealClear Politics and The Inquirer


After descending sharp, treacherous turns on Schuylkill County’s Route 61, you’ll pass a sleepy town, tucked in a coal-scarred valley, where steeples and onion domes command blocks of duplexes and rowhomes. This is St. Clair, the hometown of Tim Holden, a Blue Dog Democrat who served in Congress from 1993 to 2013.

Holden was the type of Democrat who garnered bipartisan support in Schuylkill, where, not long ago, voters split tickets based on local ties, not party allegiance. Now, Schuylkill is solid Republican territory thanks to Donald Trump, who won nearly 70% of the county’s votes — and every precinct — in 2016. These 44,000 votes just about equaled Trump’s narrow statewide margin of victory. The county embodies what makes this state so unpredictable in electoral politics.


Today, Republicans outnumber Democrats in Schuylkill by 18,000 voters, compared with 2008, when the county’s GOP had only a 5,000 voter-registration edge. Indeed, east of the Susquehanna River, it’s hard to find a more ardent slice of Trump’s base than Schuylkill, which has the world’s richest veins of anthracite coal. Schuylkill’s 141,359 residents either live, as locals put it, “south of the mountain” or “north of the mountain.” In the south, scenic agricultural valleys — untouched by coal — are inhabited by German Protestants who have long trended Republican. Meanwhile, the north features poorer Catholic coal towns shaped by the mining experience.



Though historically Democratic, northern Schuylkill’s residents are pro-life and pro-gun but also retain an inherited attachment to labor and social welfare. Many families have endured tragedy and hardships, and played the hand they were dealt. They embody what one historian called the region’s “coalcracker culture — self-reliance, a strong work ethic, a capacity to save born out of a psychology of scarcity, a deep commitment to family, a sense of community, and strong religious ties.”


Though stoic, there’s nothing timid about this region’s backing of Trump. Howard Merrick, Schuylkill’s GOP chairman, said, “The enthusiasm is much greater than four years ago.” As Merrick noted, there’s an overwhelming demand for campaign signs at the party’s headquarters in downtown Pottsville, the county seat and home to Yuengling’s brewery. Those who stop by are often “Democrats who tell me they’re Democrat, but still ask for signs — that didn’t happen four years ago,” he said. “If I had more signs, I could give out more at a faster rate, but I don’t have enough signs.”


This fervent support reflects a county that was always politically combustible. John O’Hara — a Pottsville native, famed 20th-century writer, and once a “straight-ticket Democrat” — foreshadowed the political sentiments expressed by Trump’s base in a 1965 column: “I get my laughs at the expense of the liberals and the intellectuals.” As an “independent conservative,” O’Hara called himself a member of the “Outs, and yet I need not conform to the policies and restrictions of the Outs if I don’t feel like it.”


Schuylkill’s “Outs” are all in for Trump in a county that has markedly declined since O’Hara’s stories. In northern Schuylkill, a conveyor over Route 54 declares in black letters: “Coal Keeps the Lights On.” But the anthracite coal industry — its dominance an enduring memory — is a shared cultural heritage rather than a going concern. In reality, distribution centers keep Schuylkill’s lights on. Warehousing projects have continued despite the COVID-era economy.


Merrick, the GOP chair, factors this economic resilience as a reason behind Schuylkill’s continued support for Trump. “The number of jobs out there is amazing,” he said, “and a person can find a good-paying job.” If anything, Merrick noted, locals express anger over Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor, who has enforced strident — and contested —lockdowns. In Schuylkill, community life revolves around parishes, taverns, and local sports; COVID-19 measures resulted in crowd limits at football games, closed bars, and canceled summer festivals.


Of course, not all of Schuylkill’s residents direct their ire toward Wolf. Earlier this month, for example, a group of about 40 Democrats marched in downtown Pottsville to support Joe Biden.


It remains unclear if a county like Schuylkill could help offset the anger over Trump’s presidency in Pennsylvania’s cities and suburbs. RealClearPolitics' polling average shows Biden with a narrow lead over Trump in Pennsylvania. But in Schuylkill, Merrick sees the “spontaneous eruptions” of people participating in Trump flag drops and decorating their houses with campaign regalia. It’s this enthusiasm that keeps both campaigns alive in Pennsylvania.