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Election reveals GOP inroads in Westmoreland County

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, 12:02 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Scott Baker, 41, of Zelienople moves loaves of cinnamon bread from the oven onto cooling racks at 5 Generation Bakers in McKees Rocks on Wednesday, November 7, 2012. Baker said he didn’t support Obama but, because he won, “I’ll trust that he’s going to lead us out of troubling times.” Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Only a few Democratic outposts remain in Westmoreland County, as even Jeannette and Greensburg turned red in this presidential election.

Republican Mitt Romney overwhelmingly won Westmoreland County, claiming more than 60 percent of the vote. President Obama won just seven municipalities in the county.

“Obviously, the demographics of our county have changed over the last 20 years. It makes it more difficult for a national candidate to win Westmoreland County,” said Ken Burkley, a former chairman of the county Democratic committee.

In 1998, the Democrats had a registration edge of more than 64,000 voters.

On Tuesday, there were 122,373 registered Democrats and 90,013 Republicans.

Democrats could at one time deliver large blocs of voters, mostly in the bigger cities such as Greensburg, Jeannette, New Kensington and Monessen.

Obama claimed victory in New Kensington and Monessen, but not with the huge margins of victory those towns previously bestowed on Democrats.

“Before 1996, we had Ligonier and we had Murrysville,” said Republican Kim Ward, a state senator from Hempfield.

“The Democrats had everywhere else,” she said.

The tide began to turn in 1996 when Republican Sen. Bob Dole nearly won the county from President Bill Clinton.

Four years later, George Bush secured the first win in decades for a GOP presidential candidate.

Romney's success this year mirrored results from 2008, when Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona defeated Obama in Westmoreland County.

“The national party has become more liberal than old-style Westmoreland County Democrats,” Burkley said.

Those old-style Democrats said there was a time when it was easy for the party to secure wins for its candidates.

The blueprint was simple, according to former county Commissioner Ted Simon.

“The southern part and the northern part of the county were very Democratic. We always worked to try to get the middle (of the county) to move more to the Democrats,” said Simon, a party standard bearer throughout the 1970s and '80s.

“It was very comfortable and almost predictable. You always had a good feeling you were going to win in the general election,” Simon said.

Monessen's dwindling voter base illustrates the party's recent struggles in Westmoreland.

Attorney Al Gaudio, a longtime political observer from Monessen, said that 40 years ago his hometown could provide a margin of victory for Democratic candidates by nearly 8,000 votes.

Obama beat Romney in Monessen by more than 1,000 votes. City residents cast a grand total of about 3,000 votes.

“Outside of the city of Pittsburgh we used to be one of the few municipalities that had that big of a majority in Western Pennsylvania,” Gaudio said. “From there, it's been downhill ever since.”

Attorney Jeff Pavetti of Jeannette, a former county controller who once served as a city councilman, said his hometown and other traditional Democratic strongholds no longer carry the clout they once did because they are losing voters.

“The center of the county has suburbanized and gentrified. The older industrial communities and the number of those voters there have shrunk,” Pavetti said.

Republicans have experienced growing successes over the last decade leading up to a sweep of county offices in 2011.

Penn Township Commissioner Chuck Horvat said those successes have been a long time in coming.

“Voters, I believe, know Republicans are hands on, and the Democrats have seen that. They see we're not some kind of monster who just wants to take control,” Horvat said. “Twenty or thirty years ago, I didn't think this would happen. I anticipated we would tick away at it, one or two offices at a time.”

Ward said it's been the GOP's hard work that has led to the success.

“It's been remarkable, and it's been satisfying. It's humbling to have a least a small part of this,” Ward said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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