The main street of Nazareth is teeming with very alert ghosts, pirates, witches and skeletons. On this Saturday in October, the Halloween parade parades under a radiant sun and the disguised children jostle to collect the candy that rains down from the floats while their parents drink at the beer stands. After the marching bands pass two cars festooned with signs for election candidates. Just to remind the crowd that the vote of midterms November 8 is fast approaching.
Once again, everything is likely to be played out in Pennsylvania. Democrats are pretty much resigned to losing the House of Representatives, but still have hopes of keeping the Senate. And one of the decisive battles is taking place in this state of 13 million people between Democrat John Fetterman, the “lieutenant governor” (the deputy governor), and Mehmet Oz, a cathodic doctor supported by Donald Trump.
The campaign is intense because Pennsylvania, once a Democratic stronghold, is one of these pivotal states (“swing states”) evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Donald Trump won in 2016 by 44,000 votes, or less than 1% of the vote. Four years later, Joe Biden won with 80,000 votes in advance. According to the spectators of the Nazareth parade, this year again the vote should be played by a hair’s breadth. On the one hand, conservatives, such as Michael and Renee Bussen, a couple in their sixties, are up against Biden, who they believe is responsible for inflation. “The prices are exploding, we can’t do it anymore,” says Renee. The couple are also worried about the waves of migrants at the Mexican border or the increase in crime. “The Democrats are a disaster,” summarizes Michael.
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“The Republican Party has become too extremist”
On the other, we come across Democrats who have been reinvigorated by the issue of abortion. “I will vote for John Fetterman because, even though I have four children, I am in favor of abortion. The Republicans have gone too far in banning it, including cases of incest and rape” , exclaims a young woman while applauding the participants of the tournament of “steinholding“, a discipline that consists of staying as long as possible with your arm outstretched with a one-liter mug of beer in your hand. The winner will last 6 minutes!
All the pollsters have eyes only for Nazareth and the county of Northampton (310,000 souls). “It’s the perfect political barometer of Pennsylvania. For a century, the candidate who wins the presidential election in this county almost always wins the state,” observes Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College. All because Northampton is “a microcosm of Pennsylvania,” a mix of conservative rural areas and towns where blast furnaces have been replaced by distribution warehouses, conveniently located near markets in New York and Philadelphia.
Nobody, however, anticipated a year ago such a close vote for the midterm elections, in Pennsylvania but also elsewhere in the country. Traditionally, the party in power gets knocked out midterms. However, the Democrats currently have the weakest majority imaginable in the Senate: just 50 votes out of 100, plus that of the vice-president who decides between the senators in the event of a tie. In other words, Republicans only need to win one seat to regain control of the Senate. They therefore expected an easy victory.
But in the meantime, the Supreme Court of the United States decided in June to abolish the constitutional right to abortion, which remobilized the Democrats. Additionally, the Republican Party is fielding a series of disastrous candidates backed by Donald Trump. Some drag multiple scandals, others display positions far too radical for the average voter. Aged 77, Carl Bergen, retired from the construction industry, comes out of the flea market in Nazareth. “I’m a Republican,” he announces, but this year I’m voting Democrat. I’m ashamed of what the party has become, I don’t understand it anymore, it’s too extremist.” And don’t talk to him about the “guy from New Jersey”…
“We don’t know what he thinks”
Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate in Pennsylvania, is a Muslim surgeon of Turkish origin who became famous for 12 years hosting a health program on TV. He expounded on the perfect saddles – “brown, S-shaped, which sink without spattering” – or the sexual act – “two minutes on average among Americans” – with many accessories to make the thing more exciting. For example, he mimicked the journey of a hemorrhoid by entering a giant rectum made of a pink cardboard box himself… Last year, he decided to run for a senator’s seat and won the primaries narrowly, thanks to the intervention of Donald Trump.
In the eyes of some State Republicans, the good doctor has a few minor faults, starting with that of not being from the region. On the contrary, he lived until last year in nearby New Jersey. On social networks, the Democrats portray him as a parachuted multimillionaire and a weather vane without convictions. They also recall that, in his television show, he promoted controversial treatments. No wonder Michael Bussen, our Trump voter, isn’t thrilled. “We don’t really know what he thinks,” he said. And he adds: “But the positions of the other are not very clear and that is enough for me.”
“The other” is John Fetterman, a two-meter giant, tattooed, with a shaved head, who walks around in shorts and a sweatshirt, winter and summer. After graduating from Harvard, Fetterman worked for AmeriCorps, a federal agency specializing in education. He set up a program in Braddock, a very poor black town, of which he was mayor for thirteen years before being elected lieutenant-governor in 2018. This Saturday, October 15, a small enthusiastic crowd attends one of his meetings in Johnstown, a town located a few hundred kilometers from Nazareth, known for a spectacular flood which killed 2,200 people in 1889. Today, the area is devastated by the closure of the iron and steel factories and it has turned conservative. Many former workers, frustrated by the Democratic Party’s inaction to stem economic decline, have turned to Donald Trump. But John Fetterman is no ordinary politician. “I like his authenticity, his honesty. He understands our problems,” says Heather, a mother.
“Everyone has health problems”
He’s not the perfect candidate either. “His style and his very left positions risk costing him the votes of older, more moderate voters”, continues Professor Borick. Another problem: on May 13, this father of three children married to a Brazilian suffered a stroke and had to have a pacemaker implanted in him. Although his medical report is good, the Democrat still suffers from speech difficulties and hearing problems. His supporters are not worried: “Everyone has health problems. Many people have strokes and recover very well,” says Susan, a retiree who came to listen to Johnstown.
But in recent weeks, Mehmet Oz has flooded television with commercials that sow doubt about his intellectual abilities and accuse him of laxity in criminality. This is the theme favored by the Republicans to mobilize their voters and make people forget the thorny debate on abortion. And it works: John Fetterman has lost his lead in the polls and the two men are neck and neck.
The scenario is identical in the three other states – Wisconsin, Nevada and Georgia -, decisive for the senatorial elections. The surge in popularity Democrats enjoyed this summer after the abortion decision and lower fuel prices appears to have faded. “We are witnessing the return of certain usual dynamics during the elections of the midterms“, note analysts of the political letter Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Clearly, the midterm poll is generally a referendum on the record of the incumbent president, which almost always favors the opposition party.
On the eve of Halloween, October 31, the gardens of houses in Pennsylvania are covered with tombstones and plastic skeletons. A perfect illustration of the deleterious climate that hovers over the mid-term test ballot.
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