How did Fetterman beat Oz in Pa. Senate race? Swing voters offer clues – USA TODAY

7c627713 1a56 455d 9661 acbc8ff42fa9 XXX 20221108 USAT MKS CountyBellwether 05


EASTON, Pa. – The low buzzing sound of hair clippers competed with barbershop chatter inside Leo’s on North 4th Street in this industrial town where the Lehigh and Delaware rivers meet in eastern Pennsylvania.

Draped in a black cape, Brendan McCabe sat down for the perfect cut and the Americana of barbershop banter – part therapy, part current events. The day after the midterm elections there was no conversation more current than national politics on the eclectic street that connects the heart of downtown to major highways.

McCabe, a 42-year-old independent voter in Easton, gave President Joe Biden a ‘D’ grade for his first two years in office. “I haven’t seen a whole lot of change, a whole lot of improvement.” 

But the independent voter still chose to reelect members of the president’s party in down-ballot races, particularly incumbent Rep. Susan Wild. The Democrat earned his vote because she advocates for mental health, the industry in which he works. 

In a year that was supposed to favor Republicans, purple Pennsylvania bucked expectations and chose a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators for the first time since the 1840s. Voters also elected their first Black lieutenant governor and flipped the state House to Democratic control for the first time in more than a decade.

With results still coming in from Tuesday’s midterm elections, one thing is clear: there was no red wave for Republicans. Despite disapproval of Biden, historical trends and near 40-year record inflation, Democrats fared far better than pundits had predicted. If there’s anywhere to reflect that, it’s Northampton County, a bellwether in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

Conversations with dozens of voters tell the story of why. For many, it was distaste for former President Donald Trump and wariness of a Republican Party many feel has moved too far to the right on issues such as Christian nationalism, human rights and conspiracy theories.

In the middle of that last century, Easton, the seat of Northampton County, was a vessel where coal, iron and steel were moved by rail and water. Factories there and in surrounding communities such as Bethlehem, Nazareth and Allentown helped grow the middle class and fuel the American dream before the area fell on hard times in the 1980s and 1990s when the blast furnaces went cold.

The area has revamped itself as a destination for manufacturing and medicine, arts and culture, and education, attracting commuters and residents alike from nearby New Jersey and New York.

The sentiment in communities like Easton helped Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman triumph over Republican Mehmet Oz, flipping one of Pennsylvania’s Senate seats blue. The Senate race was expected to be tight – but Fetterman’s victory was called earlier than expected, to the shock of Republicans and Democrats alike. 

Predictions that Republicans would comfortably capture the House and cruise to a majority in the Senate haven’t come to fruition. Days after the election, control of the House was still up for grabs, and even if Republicans manage to flip it, they will do so by the narrowest of margins. Control of the Senate remained a tossup with votes still being counted in Arizona and Nevada. The too-close-to-call Georgia race is headed to a runoff.

Biden’s closing argument to voters ahead of the midterms was that democracy was on the ballot – an implicit call to reject Trumpism. In Northampton County, many swing voters appeared to have heeded that advice.

What you missed in the midterms: GOP notch wins, Dems try to hold off ‘red tsunami’

‘Let DeSantis take the shot’

Dozens of voters who talked to USA TODAY revealed they are often not single-issue voters, party loyalists or easy to predict. Some didn’t make up their minds until they cast their ballots. For some, they weren’t so much casting a ballot for someone but voting against someone else: Donald Trump. 

This county and state gave Trump presidential power in 2016, an election that lifted other Republicans in down-ballot races. Two years later, they sent a record number of Democratic women to public office – including Wild in Congress – in the 2018 midterms. In 2020, they voted Trump out of office and elected Biden. 

And in the 2022 midterms, fed up with election deniers and a person they viewed as a sore loser, voters here rebuked the former president’s party. 

Trump teasing a big announcement next week, with political analysts speculating he will run in 2024, didn’t help Republican efforts here. 

“I think he should stay out,” said 37-year-old barber Chris Corona. “If (Florida GOP Gov. Ron) DeSantis wants to take the shot, let DeSantis take the shot.”

In a year when Republicans had history on their side, with the sitting president’s party typically losing in the first midterm and the nation facing with high inflation, the 2022 midterms were theirs to lose. Votes were still being counted as McCabe and Corona talked politics, but it seemed the predicted red wave wouldn’t arrive.

It’s not that inflation doesn’t matter in Easton, an area where the median income is less than $40,000. But with Trumpism ascendant, and with election denier and gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano at the top of the Republican ticket in Pennsylvania, voters here were more concerned about American democracy than the American dream. They rejected Mastriano in favor of Democrat Josh Shapiro.

Inflation weighed heavily on voters, with 51% calling it an important factor in a survey from The Associated Press. 

But behind inflation, at 44%, was the future of democracy, according to the same survey. 

Inflation is evident in their lives, Corona and McCabe agreed. But overturning American democracy would have a greater impact, they said.

“I don’t like corrupt people running for office,” Corona said, carefully choosing not to name names as a business owner who serves clients of all political backgrounds.

An experienced barber, he can deftly change conversation as quickly as he switches from shears to clippers and back again.

Shavings of McCabe’s hair fall to the black-and-white checkered floor inside the barbershop while a picture window behind him offers a view outside of copper-colored leaves letting go of their branches and falling next to a few remaining candidate signs, the last remnants of the November midterms. 

Italian immigrant Leo Emili opened the barbershop in 1950. By the time Corona bought it in 2012, Easton had changed like many old blue-collar towns here – into a community of artists, eateries, small business owners and markets to sell their wares. 

Corona grew up in Easton and now lives in nearby Palmer Township, where there are more signs for Republicans than Democrats. Taxes and getting rid of corruption are two of his top issues as a small-business owner and independent-minded voter. 

“I’m going to see what this guy offers and what this guy offers and go with what I think suits me best,” Corona said, saying he votes for principles and a person over a party.

“I’m going to vote one way just to keep (out) the other one I think is worse,” Corona said. “I mean, that’s what we’re constantly doing, right, is voting for the least of two evils.”

Election deniers: How did candidates who questioned, denied 2020 outcome fare in Tuesday’s elections?

Worried about abortion rights

Inside the Easton Public Market, where the smell of smoothies, fresh flowers and brewed beer fill the air, several shoppers said they were happy about Democratic victories, even if they chose not to elaborate.

At the Modern Crumb Bakeshop, worker Allyson Patane chose to elaborate, taking a break from loading treats onto trays to explain what was at stake for her, a 30-year-old woman, in the vote.

“I was definitely most worried about abortion rights this year,” she said. 

Even though high inflation has caused her family to rethink their grocery list and buy only the necessities, it’s women’s rights and a desire to see more Democrats in the Senate that motivated her vote. 

Patane was a reliable Democratic voter this year but said she is an independent thinker who would consider voting for a Republican if a candidate had moderate policies or messaging that might appeal to her. 

Trump, and his endorsed candidates Mastriano and Dr. Mehmet Oz, were not those candidates. 

After the former president teased a big announcement next week, Patane found Democratic candidates even more appealing. Knowing that some voters would support another Trump run in Pennsylvania, where he won by about 44,000 votes in 2016 and lost by 80,000 in 2020, she was more motivated to vote against the former president’s  party Tuesday.

“That does make me want to come out stronger and be like no, no, no,” she said.

Making history: Record 12 women form cohort, will simultaneously serve as governors in 2023

Looking for leadership

Main Street in Bethlehem, an old steel town founded on Christmas Eve in 1741, was already decorated for the holidays. White string lights are wrapped around trees that line the blocks, and green garland and red bows adorned the lamp posts. 

But inside Irish store Donegal Square on Main Street, the conversation was about politics, not holidays. 

Kitty Formica, 71, of Bethlehem, and Marie Barry, 64, of Allentown, were happy with the results Tuesday. They didn’t vote for Fetterman or Oz, but they were glad Fetterman won. They chose other Democrats on the ballot, but both cited concerns about Fetterman’s stroke and thought he might need more time for rest and recovery than would be realistic for a U.S. senator.

Barry and Formica have voted for Republicans and Democrats at different times, but in this election Barry was looking for leadership. 

“I think our communities, somewhat, are broken. The Jan. 6 incident did not help our country and the community,” she said. “So I hope, too, that the people that are elected will try to bring us back together.”

Leadership was also Formica’s top concern. 

“I know there’s gas issues and inflation, all those things,” she said. “But if you have a good leader, you would think all those things would take care of themselves in varying degrees.”

Barry and other Northampton County voters don’t think Democratic leadership is perfect.

Some independent voters said they would like to send a message to the Democratic Party by voting Republican again, but that won’t happen if Trump is at the top of the ticket in 2024, they said. 

Inflation and a fragile democracy have made for “a big mess,” Barry said. But Trump, she later said, would “make everything a bigger mess.”

“I don’t think this area will go Republican again as long as he’s on the ballot.”

‘A good day for America’: Biden hails midterms even as key races, control of Congress remain undecided