The battle for Pennsylvania, the soul of America

Ahead of the midterm election, the Democrats and Republicans put forward two very different visions for the future of the state and the United States

US midterm election
Former US president Barack Obama, and current President, Joe Biden, upon arrival at the rally in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) on Saturday.Patrick Semansky (AP)
Miguel Jiménez

The midterm election in the United States is fast approaching, and all eyes are on the state of Pennsylvania, which may decide which party controls the Senate. On Saturday, the last three US presidents – Donald Trump, Barack Obama and current President Joe Biden – visited the state in an attempt to sway voters. The Democrats spoke to supporters in Philadelphia, the largest city in the state, while 250 miles away, the Republican Party held a rally in Latrobe, a city of about 8,000 people outside of Pittsburgh.

The two parties had very different visions for the state, and the United States more broadly. Trump spoke of inflation, immigration, drugs and crime – real problems that are exaggerated by the Republican Party –, while Biden and Obama discussed the state of democracy, reproductive rights, public healthcare and gun control. In Latrobe, Trump falsely claimed that he won the 2020 presidential election. In Philadelphia, Biden made it clear that he defeated his “predecessor” (he rarely calls Trump by his name). While Trump attacked the “radical left,” Obama and Biden criticized so-called MAGA Republicans, i.e. Trump-supporting members of the party.

With almost 13 million inhabitants, Pennsylvania is the fifth most populous state in the country (behind California, Texas, Florida and New York) and reflects, like few others, the division in American society, where each side not only has different ideologies, but also a different version of the facts.

Pennsylvania was one of the states that helped Trump clinch victory in the 2016 presidential election. His populist message resounds not only with voters in rural counties, but also those in run-down industrial areas who have lost purchasing power and are concerned about the rise in drug use and insecurity. This white working- and middle-class population, described in Ben Bradlee Jr. 2018 book as The Forgotten, views migrants with mistrust and feel their best days are behind them – issues that Trump played up on Saturday.

The former president held his rally at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, where he descended from an airplane with his last name in giant letters that served as a backdrop for his speech, as he was fond of doing with Air Force One when he was in the Oval Office. Trump’s rhetoric has been getting more extreme, and on Saturday he attacked Biden’s “wide-open” border policy, warned the US was seeing an “invasion” of Mexican immigrants and criticized the “twisted race and gender insanity in our schools.” “There’s nothing good to say about what’s happening in our country,” he said.

Biden, who was born in Pennsylvania, won the state in the 2020 presidential elections. The Democrats have strong support in the state’s major cities, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which are more racially and culturally diverse. During that campaign, he was able to tap into voter discontent over the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the country’s economic problems. But it was a close win, and now the odds have evened.

Pennsylvania is the only state where Trump has given two rallies in the midterm campaign. It’s also the state that has received the most number of visits from Biden, who has traveled there more than half a dozen times since September. Up until now, Obama and Biden have been campaigning in different states. Obama’s popularity has increased and he has been helping to boost support for the Democrats in some of the most hotly contested states, where a Biden appearance could be counterproductive. Pennsylvania, Biden’s home state, has been the exception.

“This crowd is so loud, I think you can hear us in Latrobe,” Biden joked during his speech on Saturday. Turnout, however, appeared lower than expected – despite the fact that this was the first rally featuring both Biden and Obama. The rally was held at Liacouras Center at Temple University, which has capacity for 10,000 people, but only between one third and one hald of the seats were filled, according to EL PAÍS calculations. The White House placed attendance at 7,500 people.

At the rally, Biden described the midterms – where all of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for grabs – as “one of the most important elections in our lifetime.” “The outcome is going to shape our country for decades to come. And the power to shape that outcome is in your hands,” he said. Speaking from Philadelphia, a city he called the “place that defines the soul of America,” the president said that Tuesday’s vote should not be seen not as a referendum on his government, but rather as a choice between two very different models of country.

“This is a defining moment for the nation. And we all – we all must speak with one voice, regardless of our party. There’s no place in America for political violence,” he said, condemning the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. “Today, we face an inflection point, one of those moments that comes along every several generations. One of those moments that you’re going to look back on it years from now.”

But it was Obama, who closed the rally, who got the biggest applause. “Democracy itself is on the ballot. The stakes are high,” said Obama, echoing Biden’s warnings. The former president recalled how his defeat in the midterm elections conditioned his legislative agenda and prevented him from filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court. “I understand democracy might not seem like a top priority right now, especially when you’re worried about paying the bills,” added Obama. “But we’ve seen throughout history, we’ve seen throughout the world, when true democracy goes away, people get hurt. It has real consequences.”

Former President Donald Trump, during the rally held in Latrobe on Saturday.
Former President Donald Trump, during the rally held in Latrobe on Saturday.ANGELA WEISS (AFP)

The Pennsylvania state Senate race is between the Republican Mehmet Oz, a famous TV presenter and retired surgeon of Turkish descent, and John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, from the left wing of the Democratic Party, who has done most of his campaigning in a hoodie. Fetterman appeared to be ahead in the polls, but the aftermath of his May stroke (which was evident in the only debate between the two candidates) and a general trend in favor of Republicans have leveled the race. The Senate race is one of the three tightest in the country, along with Georgia and Nevada. The party that wins two of those three seats has the best chance of controlling the Senate.

Pennsylvania will also be key for the 2024 presidential elections. At Saturday’s rally, Trump dropped more hints that he is planning to run. “I’m not going to say it right now,” he told the crowd. “But you’re going to be very happy... In the very next, very, very, very short amount of time, you’re going to be very happy.” Biden also intends to run for re-election, but Tuesday’s result may affect this outcome.

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