WALNUTPORT, Pa. — The coronavirus restrictions imposed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, have turned Pauline Grady from a lifelong Democrat into a registered Republican who is voting for President Trump.
The second-term governor isn’t on the ballot this year, but his handling of coronavirus shutdowns and the slow pace of reopening the state’s sporting events, restaurants and other businesses have sparked widespread anger. Even some Democrats worry that it will cause a backlash at the polls that could help Mr. Trump, who is trailing Democrat Joseph R. Biden in the key swing state.
“Definitely, there’s a frustration with the restaurants and high school sports,” said state Sen. Lisa Boscola, a Democrat representing Northampton County. “I think it could help Trump a little bit. I don’t think it’s going to be the deciding factor. Certain people feel like they got an unfair shake from Gov. Wolf, and I don’t think they’re voting for any Democrats.”
The state’s unemployment rate in August was 10.3%, compared with 8.4% nationally. The president is returning to Pennsylvania on Tuesday night to hold a campaign rally in Johnstown. It will be Mr. Trump’s fifth visit to the state since Aug. 20.
Mr. Wolf announced last week that the state is easing restrictions on public gatherings, which will allow more people to attend high school football games and other sporting events. He announced a new formula that is based on a percentage of a facility’s capacity instead of limits of 25 people indoors and 250 people outdoors.
The governor said Pennsylvanians must wear masks and engage in social distancing until further notice. State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said that “we can and will dial back these new limits” if state officials find that the expanded gatherings are causing new outbreaks of the illness.
No region of Pennsylvania has rebelled more loudly against Mr. Wolf than conservative Lebanon County. County officials this summer decided to reopen from the state lockdowns without the governor’s approval. Mr. Wolf responded by withholding $12.8 million in federal coronavirus aid from the CARES Act.
“Don’t come and say you want something from the state when you haven’t followed the rules,” Mr. Wolf said. “There are consequences. These are the consequences.”
State Rep. Russ Diamond, a Republican from Lebanon County, said of the residents in his region, “we’re stubborn Dutchmen.” He was referring to the “Pennsylvania Dutch” territory of German ancestry.
He said Democrats on the ballot will soon see political backlash from the governor’s heavy-handed actions.
“The great thing is that people understand that they have to vote all Republican because it’s a vote against Tom Wolf, even though he’s not on the ballot,” Mr. Diamond said in an interview. “This election really is a referendum on Wolf rather than a referendum on Trump.”
A spokesman for Mr. Wolf rejected that argument.
“Donald Trump should be the one concerned about backlash since his complete and utter failure to lead caused 210,000 people to die, and then he minimized their deaths,” said Jeffrey Sheridan, principal at GPS Impact and a political adviser to Mr. Wolf.
Matt Brouillette, a Republican from Lebanon County and founder of Commonwealth Partners, a membership organization for state and local businesses, said Mr. Wolf engaged in political payback against Mr. Diamond and his other Republican detractors in Lebanon after they challenged his leadership.
“Lebanon County got into Wolf’s crosshairs because of the very outspoken legislators, businesses and the district attorney saying we won’t prosecute [violators],” Mr. Brouillette said in an interview. “The elected officials said it’s ridiculous that you are keeping our county in lockdown when the cases and hospitalizations and ventilator uses were so low. Other counties that had worse numbers were being opened while Lebanon was being mistreated.”
Mr. Wolf released the federal aid in August with the stipulation that the county spend $2.8 million of it on an educational campaign emphasizing the importance of wearing face masks. The result: a campaign called “Mask Up Lebanon,” which appears to be off to a slow start. Its Facebook page had about 370 “likes” as of late Sunday.
“We worked it out. It was like $20 per resident of Lebanon County,” said Mr. Brouillette. “I think goes to Wolf’s vindictiveness, because Russ Diamond has been the chief mask opponent in the state. So the governor forces the county to spend a big chunk of money for education on masks, and I suspect it was to thumb his nose at Russ Diamond.”
Mr. Diamond agrees with Mr. Trump that “the cure is worse than the disease.”
“We’re not just talking about people losing their jobs, which is horrible,” Mr. Diamond said. “And then not being able to get unemployment, which is even adding insult to injury. But you look at some of the other societal impacts of this, which is heightened tensions between people, increased domestic violence, a huge decrease in child abuse reports from mandatory reporters because a lot of mandatory reporters aren’t on the job. The psychological impact of this is far worse than the virus itself.”
He predicted that Pennsylvanians will reject Mr. Biden and other Democrats on the ballot because of their governor.
“When people talk to me about the Biden commercials that are running, that all this is Trump’s jobless rate or, under Trump we have all these racial riots, people are saying, ‘Trump is tough,’” Mr. Diamond said. “They’re pointing at [Democrats] on all that stuff. They understand. They can discern the difference between what Wolf did and what Trump did.”
The state’s limits on scholastic sporting events have been frustrating for Mrs. Grady, whose elder son plays football in middle school. Until now, parents were not allowed to attend away games.
“Your kid gets hurt, and you’re 20 or 30 miles away?” she said.
The restrictions on businesses, difficulties with inconsistent school instruction and the state’s business waiver decisions that many call arbitrary persuaded Mrs. Grady to switch her party affiliation in May.
“I felt like I had this allegiance to my [Democratic] Party affiliation for the longest time because I do still have some liberal views,” she said. “But on this, I realized you can vote Republican and still have liberal ways. I am definitely voting for Trump, which is a huge thing for me. Even though I didn’t vote for him in 2016, I would never go as far as saying that I hated the man.
“Somebody said to me, ‘So now you’re a Trump supporter.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m a Trump tolerator.’ I will tolerate him because he is clearly for the American people.”
Partly because of the coronavirus crisis and partly in response to urban rioting, Mrs. Grady and her husband bought their first firearm this year. When their local hardware and gun store received a shipment of scarce ammunition, she said, the line of customers was out the door.
“My husband’s a registered Republican, staunch Republican, his whole family,” she said. “And I would argue, but we always were civil about it. And he always said to me, ‘Open your eyes.’ Well, I did. And it’s quite clear.”
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