BETHEL PARK, Pennsylvania—Just a few short months ago, if you had driven down Baptist Road in this middle-class southern suburb of Pittsburgh, it would have been hard to miss the Bernie Sanders shrine filling the yard of a tidy, yellow-brick ranch home. There was the life-size cutout of the former presidential candidate, a large, homemade “FEEL THE BERN” sign along the berm of the road, a few “Bernie 2020” and “Get Berned” signs, as well as a lively decorated mailbox plastered with Bernie bumper stickers.
Sometime between the Pennsylvania primary in June (when Democratic voters gave Joe Biden their support) and last week, the shrine came down, replaced by one lone yard sign reading, “GIANT METEOR 2020.”
Sometimes, disappointing primary election results frustrate voters so much they walk away from their party’s nominee. They traditionally decide to do one of three things: sit it out, vote third party, or join the opposing party.
Few hope for a meteor to strike the Earth as an option—but, hey, it’s 2020, and we all get it.
Last week, a flurry of elected officials in southwestern Pennsylvania, most of them county sheriffs, chose the last of the traditional options, deciding that after lifelong affiliations with the Democratic Party, they had seen enough change to make them walk away.
In 2008, there were nearly double the number of registered Democrats over Republicans in Westmoreland County, and James Albert was one of them. He had already been elected district judge as a Democrat for over a dozen years, and he would vote for Barack Obama that cycle and again in 2012.
Albert first served his community as a local police officer and then as a county detective and a deputy sheriff before running for district judge. He came out of a short-lived retirement last year and won the race for sheriff as a Democrat.
Today, there are more registered Republicans in Westmoreland County, and Sheriff Albert is one of them. It is a decision he says he took seriously as he watched his party of birth leave less and less room for his pro-life and pro-Second Amendment values with each passing year.
When the party started walking away from supporting law enforcement, Albert had had enough. “What really convinced me,” he says, “was the past few months as the country has witnessed these riots where we saw the looting of businesses or arson attacks or the destruction of property, as well as assaults on innocent citizens and attacks on law enforcement. That bothered me. I’ve for 40 years (been) connected to law enforcement in my life, and it really bothered me.”
“Then, David Dorn was killed.” Dorn, a retired police officer, was fatally shot during looting in St. Louis in June.
Albert said that for years, when he campaigned as a Democrat at gun bashes, church festivals, ice cream socials, and farmers markets, people would say to him, “Oh, you’re pro-life,” or, “You’re an NRA life member,” and think he was a Republican. When he tried to explain he was a conservative Democrat, people would say that party was long gone. “They were right, and I just realized it was time for me to go where my values were,” he said.
Albert said Gina Cerilli, one of the county’s commissioners and a Democrat, told a local paper he had turned his back on the unions who supported him through a number of elections. “I thought, well, that’s not true. ... As far as the unions are concerned, I have always been as a Republican,” he said.
Jim Custer, like just about everyone in Fayette County in 1983, said that when you turned 18, you registered as a Democrat. “This was the county of coal miners and steelworkers and farmers and blue-collar workers, and that was the party who said they had their back,” he said.
After he graduated from Laurel Highlands High School, Custer joined the military. He served four years active Air Force and then three years in the reserve while attending college part time. The intent was to finish college until an opportunity came along to fulfill a lifelong dream. “When I was nearing the end of my active-duty enlistment, there was an announcement that there was going to be testing for state police,” he said. Custer spent 22 years as a member of the “first and the finest.” When he retired, he decided to run for county sheriff as a Democrat, a position he has held for the past five years.
The 54-year-old married father of two says the drift away from the party on the national level began long ago. His last vote for a Democratic presidential candidate was for Bill Clinton, followed by votes for George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney and President Donald Trump.
When he was asked by Butler County Sheriff Mike Slupe if he had any problem endorsing Trump alongside 14 other sheriffs, Custer didn’t even pause to answer. “Hey, it’s great. I don’t care who it is. It’s still the president of the United States. I spent seven years in the Air Force. Being that close to Air Force One—that was a big thing for me,” he said.
His wife snapped a photo of him holding his “Cops For Trump” sign and put it on Facebook—and then things got really interesting.
By last Sunday, he’d gone online and quietly changed his voter registration. By Tuesday, he was once again standing with other members of the law enforcement community at a Trump rally in Pittsburgh when the president called him out by name and noted his party change.
“He kind of did my announcement for me,” Custer said.
Party affiliation and the emotional connection that goes along with it is complex. It is more than just a name. It is a decision that you likely discussed with your parents over the dinner table when you were 18 or that was passed down through your family’s life experiences. It is often rooted in place, profession or a grandparent.
The direction any party takes is always at the risk of shedding people who are unwilling to go along for the ride. For many establishment Republicans, Trump was a bridge too far, and they went toward the Democrats. For Democrats like Custer, the longtime-leftward veer of the party lost them awhile ago.
While these switches in Western Pennsylvania are more about both parties’ realignments, it is worth noting Trump did win the state in 2016 on the backs of voters in counties such as Fayette, Westmoreland, and the 10 others that surround Pittsburgh.
The calculation Biden seems to be making is the same one Hillary Clinton made in 2016: Run up the numbers in Philadelphia and suburban collar counties, plus Allegheny County, and hope the rural vote remains unenthused. Certainly, those areas are more populated, but you never really know how many Alberts and Custers out there are going to show up—or how many pro-meteor people are going to stay home.