2020 hopefuls using Pittsburgh as early campaign backdrop
From old steel mills to sleek technology parks, the Pittsburgh region likely has the backdrop presidential candidates are looking for as they pitch their platforms to the nation’s voters, according to political strategists.
Western Pennsylvania’s large populations of veterans, seniors, union workers and students could give aspiring presidential candidates an audience that mimics voters in early-primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the strategists said.
“They look at Pittsburgh much the way movie producers look at Pittsburgh,” said Dennis Roddy, senior adviser at the Pittsburgh-based political consulting firm ColdSpark, whose client list has included Republicans such as U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of the Lehigh Valley and U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler of Peters.
“They come to Pittsburgh and it can be — depending on where they are — a gritty and industrial city, Gotham City, I think we’ve been New York on at least two occasions,” Roddy said. “It’s a backdrop. It’s a place where people will come out to look at a candidate and be impressed.”
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand stopped in Pittsburgh on Thursday to discuss health care costs and unionization efforts with UPMC workers, making her the third candidate to bring her campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to the city. Former Vice President Joe Biden kicked off his campaign at a Pittsburgh union hall in April. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders held a rally near the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland earlier that month that touched on universal health care and attempts to form a Pitt graduate student union.
“Because of our rich labor history, it gives candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their support for organized labor,” Democratic strategist Mike Mikus said of Democrats making early stops here. “And at the same time, it shows that they know what it takes to compete in a critical part of our country.”
Following Biden’s visit in April, experts said candidates visiting Pittsburgh early in the campaign want to show that they’re paying attention to blue-collar voters.
“(Biden) wants to send the message that he is the candidate who can steal back those white, working-class voters that went to Donald Trump in 2016 and made the difference in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin,” said Paul Sracic, chair of the political science department at Youngstown State.
President Donald Trump visited Western Pennsylvania several times while campaigning and throughout his presidency. He likely will return as November 2020 approaches.
Trump, then the presumptive Republican nominee, was welcomed to Monessen during the 2016 election by former Mayor Lou Mavrakis, a Democrat, who at the time said his struggling river town would take whatever help it could get. During a speech at the scrap metal company Alumisource, Trump laid out plans to boost the economy. He promised the Mon Valley residents “a new era of prosperity.”
Mayor Matt Shorraw, who replaced Mavrakis in 2017, won’t be as welcoming. He said he would not “allow (Trump) to lie to the public again about his false economic promises.”
Shorraw said he has not yet received calls from any of the Democratic candidates but would be happy to help arrange visits.
Months after taking office, Trump held a rally in nearby Youngstown, Ohio, where he announced a nationwide crackdown on sanctuary cities and promised to bring jobs back to Rust Belt cities.
“Trump is what you’d call a movement,” ColdSpark’s Roddy said. “He represents something more than his own candidacy, and in many respects, he represents the disappointment and anger of people who are affected by economic displacement. And they will come out to hear him no matter what his policies, no matter what portion of their miseries are attributable to his policies, because they’re going to be angry.”
Mikus doesn’t think the president will receive as warm of a welcome this election cycle.
“I think it’s going to be difficult for him to win Pennsylvania a second time,” Mikus said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .