LANCASTER, Pa. — If nothing else this election year, the people of Pennsylvania Dutch Country will get to know the two major parties’ vice presidential nominees. And vice versa.
“I am so glad you pronounce ‘Lancaster’ the same way we do in Virginia,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, said Tuesday evening at the Boys & Girls Club on Lemon Street. Lancastrians are sensitive about this. It’s LANC-aster.
Before Kaine took the stage, Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray assured the crowd Kaine knew the drill. “He knows how to pronounce it already,” Gray said, before praising Kaine, particularly for being a former mayor and city councilman in Richmond, Virginia. Also, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf likewise vouched for Kaine.
Every little bit helps, apparently, in the battle for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes. “The Keystone State is a key state,” Kaine said, before launching into his stump speech. And there is more at stake than the presidency, with a competitive Senate race and, here, 60 miles from Center City, Philadelphia, an emerging House race where Democrats smell an opportunity.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential nominee, has already touched down here, holding a rally in nearby East Lampeter Township on Aug. 9.
While Pence’s appearance featured a smattering of local GOP officials, absent were vulnerable Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, engaged in a tough re-election battle, and state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, the Republican looking to win an open seat race of the retiring local congressman, GOP Rep. Joe Pitts.
Here at the Boys & Girls Club, Kaine was joined by Wolf, Gray and Christina Hartman, Smucker’s Democratic challenger. “I’m proud to be a Democrat, and I’m proud to be on the same side as Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine,” Hartman said. Democratic strategists are hoping Trump’s unpopularity will weigh on down-ballot candidates, particularly in House and Senate races, where they hope to flip GOP majorities.
Hartman was ready with that line of attack.
“Make no mistake: A vote for Lloyd Smucker is a vote for Donald Trump,” she said.
“How ‘bout Christina Hartman? Wasn’t she great?” Kaine said after taking the stage.
The area isn’t the most obvious target for the Clinton-Kaine ticket, nor for Hartman. For generations, Lancaster was the most Republican county in the state.
Former Rep. Robert Walker was a top lieutenant to Newt Gingrich in the lead-up to the Republicans’ takeover of the House in 1994. His successor, Pitts, is one of the most conservative members of Congress. Many Americans still think of the area as it was represented in the Harrison Ford movie “Witness,” which depicted a police detective and his experience among the Amish in Lancaster. But the area is increasingly suburban, a short train ride or drive to Philadelphia, Baltimore and, a little further, New York City.
In 2008, Barack Obama narrowly won Pitts’ Lancaster-anchored 16th Congressional District under its present boundaries, 50-49 percent, on his way to winning the presidency.
In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won the district 53-46 percent. Clinton has consistently lead Trump in polls here in Pennsylvania, and her campaign hopes her comfortable margins in Philadelphia’s close-in suburbs, such as Montgomery and Bucks counties, spills over to surrounding areas. It has deployed staff and resources in Lancaster, such as a regional press secretary who started just this week.
Gray, the local mayor, summed up the change in his party’s fortunes with his remarks at the Boys & Girls Club.
“I can remember a time when we would get three or four Democrats together and say, ‘Isn’t this unusual?’” Gray said, reveling in the packed and enthusiastic gymnasium.
Hartman and the folks at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who placed her on the DCCC’s emerging Red-to-Blue candidate list — reserved for races they are considering investing time and resources in — are hoping those lonely days are long in the past.
For Kaine, his Lancaster event was the second of two rallies in traditionally Republican Pennsylvania territory. He started out the day in Erie, joined by Katie McGinty, a former Al Gore aide who is running against Toomey. That waterside city is represented by a Republican, Rep. Mike Kelly.
Kaine then headed down to Lancaster. On Wednesday, he’ll head up to Bethlehem in the Lehigh Valley, represented by Republican Rep. Charlie Dent.
Those Republicans, and area residents, should get used to seeing the presidential circus come to town.
“We’re going to be here a lot between now and Nov. 8,” Kaine said.
And they’ll all have an opportunity to demonstrate correct pronunciation of “Lancaster.”
“Yeah, we’re kind of big on that,” Hartman said after the rally.