The Ripon Forum

Volume 52, No. 5

November 2018

A View from Northampton County

By on October 23, 2018

“Nothstein’s allegiance to Trump appears to be more of a burden than a boost as the mid-terms draw near.”

by CHRISTOPHER P. BORICK

In the Summer of 2017, I authored a piece in The Ripon Forum that examined Northampton County, Pennsylvania and its status as one of only three counties in Pennsylvania carried by both Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

I concluded the piece by writing: “An election map of Pennsylvania shows Northampton County to be surrounded by counties that Hillary Clinton carried, leaving Northampton an island of Trump electoral strength.  But as waves develop in politics, as in oceans, islands are often the places that feel the changes first and most directly.”

Now as the much anticipated 2018 mid-term election approaches Trump’s “Northampton Island” is indeed feeling the push of strong political currents that may once again alter the political landscape of this pivotal region of the Keystone State.

Signals of the tenuous hold that the GOP maintained in Northampton County after President Trump’s win there emerged in late 2017 in the form of local election results.  Democrats had tremendous success across county-wide elections in a county that President Trump carried by 4% a year earlier, knocking off the incumbent Republican County Executive and claiming a majority of the seats on the County Council for the first time in about a decade.  A more granular look at voting districts across the county indicates many “Trump Districts” flipping to Democratic majorities in these off-year contests.

Signals of the tenuous hold that the GOP maintained in Northampton County after President Trump’s win there emerged in late 2017 in the form of local election results.

As the calendar turned to 2018, the political landscape in Northampton County was further altered by a landmark decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  In February, the Court ordered the state’s 18 congressional districts to be redrawn for what they identified as a violation of the Commonwealth’s constitution. For residents of Northampton County and the broader Lehigh Valley region, this meant that the 2018 congressional race would be contested on dramatically different terrain.  While Northampton County had been divided among two districts under the previous district lines, the entire county was placed in the same district under the new plan.

Long-term Republican Congressman Charlie Dent, who had represented most of Northampton County, announced his retirement from Congress in the Fall of 2017 before the redistricting occurred.  Dent had become one of the most prominent House Republican critics of Trump, and while there are numerous factors that may have led to his decision to step aside, a likely primary battle was certainly not an attractive option for the long-term representative.  With Dent on the sidelines, the Republican primary to replace him saw the candidates declare strong support for President Trump in a bid to win favor with GOP primary voters in the district who polls showed overwhelmingly approved of the 45th President’s work in office.  The winner of the Republican primary in the new 7th Congressional District, Marty Nothstein, went “all in” with the President during the primary.  But in a district that had moved from a +8 Trump margin under the old lines to a +1 Clinton advantage under the new lines, Nothstein’s allegiance to Trump appears to be more of a burden than a boost as the mid-terms draw near.

Since the summer of 2017, The Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion has polled the Northampton County region a number of times and found President Trump’s standing locally to be near state and national averages, with approval ratings hovering around the 40% mark.  The gender gap that appears to be ever-expanding since 2016 is particularly robust in Northampton County, with approval of the President among women in the region consistently in the mid-30s, compared to mid- to upper-40s among local men. Notably, the Democrats have selected local attorney Susan Wild as their nominee in the newly constructed 7th District, as she attempts to become the first women to ever represent Northampton County in Congress.

As the calendar turned to 2018, the political landscape in Northampton County was further altered by a landmark decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

While President Trump is not on the ballot in Northampton County this November, one of his closest proxies is.  In the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, a Trump acolyte, Congressman Lou Barletta, is seeking to unseat two-term Democratic incumbent Bob Casey Jr. Barletta was one of the earliest supporters of Trump’s presidential bid, and the President encouraged Barletta to run and has campaigned for him in the state.  Polls show Barletta trailing badly in the race, including in the Lehigh Valley region, and a substantial defeat of Barletta in Northampton County will be read by many as a sign of Trump’s diminished standing and clout in a place where he was victorious two years earlier.

In 2016, Donald Trump’s ability to win Northampton County was pivotal as he secured Pennsylvania’s 20 Electoral College votes in what amounted to one of his most impressive and unexpected victories.  Nearly two years removed from Trump’s triumph in this Pennsylvania county nestled along the Delaware River, it appears that he has solidified loyalty among many of his 2016 supporters, but that his broader reach within this region has eroded.

In early November it will become apparent if that erosion in Northampton County will not only contribute to the loss of a congressional seat for his party, but add to a wave that could jeopardize Trump’s agenda in the remaining two years of his term.

Christopher P. Borick, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.  To read Professor Borick’s analysis of the political environment in Northampton County that appeared in the June 2017 edition of the Forum, please click here.

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