PITTSBURGH -- Darrin Kelly, president of the powerful Allegheny-Fayette County Central Labor Council, says that not one of the Democratic candidates running for president has reached out to him to ask about or listen to what union families in western Pennsylvania are looking for in a nominee to challenge President Donald Trump in November. "Not one," he says abruptly.
That omission is obvious in just about every proclamation about the energy sector coming from the mouths of most Democratic candidates, whether it is Sens. Bernie Sanders' and Elizabeth Warren's pledging to ban fracking, or former Vice President Joe Biden's recent proclamation that workers in the fossil fuel industry need to learn how to program: "Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for god's sake!"
Youngstown State University political science professor Paul Sracic said there is one thing that is strikingly clear about all of the Democratic candidates running for their party's nomination. "They are spending way too much time listening to elites that sit on their staff or advise them, or worse yet, taking the voters pulse from Twitter, and zero time listening to Midwest swing voters," he said. "It doesn't matter who politicians talk to, but it sure does matter who they listen to." He cautions that these repeated mistakes, in particular Biden's statement on fossil fuel workers, are no different than Hillary Clinton's tone-deafness in 2016.
Biden also pledged in that same speech to eliminate fossil fuel use and put energy executives "in jail" if they do not comply.
Nick Deluliis, president and CEO of CNX Resources Corporation, a natural gas company headquartered in Pittsburgh, is, in theory, one of those executives. He responds with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek saying he could "maybe" see why the former vice president would want to indict the natural gas industry.
Whether it is the call for fracking bans or making demeaning quips about coding, it is those kinds of remarks directed at the families and the communities in western Pennsylvania that Allegheny County chief executive Rich Fitzgerald specifically urged the candidates running for the nomination not to do in a letter he sent to all of the campaign headquarters this past this year: "To win voters back in this region outside of Allegheny County, in Beaver, Washington, Butler and Westmoreland counties we need two things from the candidates; talk about the things that unite us and show up outside of the urban areas like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and just listen to their concerns." Fitzgerald is a popular Democratic county chief who was about to be sworn in for his third term.
A Democrat has to win Pennsylvania to win the presidency, and he or she has to win western Pennsylvania to win the state, something the party did consistently between 1992 and 2012. In 2016, Trump became the first Republican to win Pennsylvania since former President George H.W. Bush's first run in 1988, squeaking past Hillary Clinton by just over 44,000 votes.
Trump deserves credit for having won by going to economically disrupted places such as Erie, Scranton, Mechanicsburg, Altoona, Ambridge and Johnstown and asking for residents' votes, whereas Clinton centered her presence in the urban centers of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
The assumption was that those disrupted places were just going to follow the lead of their big-city Democrats because they always showed up for a Democrat. What outsiders missed was the harm Clinton did to herself when she did things like calling Trump supporters a "basket of deplorables" or saying, "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."
They also missed that Pennsylvania had become 0.4% more Republican every presidential cycle. Former President Bill Clinton won 28 of the state's 67 counties in 1996, but that power had eroded in 2012 to just 13 of the 67 counties won by then-President Barack Obama.
"Biden's recent declaration that coal miners could become computer programmers while advancing clean energy stances is, at best, out of touch with the plights of these states and its workers," Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Factoryville, said. "At some level, it's difficult to believe that Biden, the scrappy kid from Scranton who has made his political career connecting with working-class voters, would suddenly be so detached from these same voters' everyday realities. He seems to be making the same fatal mistakes of the 2016 Hillary Clinton run with her pronouncements that she will be putting coal miners out of business."
"At the moment, Pennsylvania is his to lose, and he will lose it if he continues to appear to be out of touch with blue-collar workers," Brauer said.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.
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