ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. — With two weeks to go until Election Day, houses around this Western Pennsylvania borough of 7,400 show a strong crop of an inedible fall harvest — yard signs.
The usual loyalties are, of course, on display. Signs for both Republican President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, are everywhere — more Trump than Biden.
Trump’s name is sometimes kept company by a blue and yellow sign for Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Beaver, who’s running for his third term in Harrisburg.
An orange and blue sign featuring his Democratic opponent, Kolbe Cole, joins Biden in some yards.
But look closely, and you’ll notice a third option, appearing next to Biden and Trump alike — the name Johnathan Peffer, in an outline of Pennsylvania.
It’s a political truism that these signs don’t vote. But if they can indicate a pulse, it would seem a lively, three-way race is underway, featuring a Republican embroiled in scandal, a Democrat receiving late establishment attention, and an independent who thinks his good name and disdain for party politics could win the day.
It all starts with Bernstine, a 36-year-old New Beaver resident who beat a Democratic incumbent in 2016.
On social media, he’s built a brash image. For example, in 2017, his first year in office, he tweeted that “If anyone EVER tries to stop my car on a highway with negative intentions … I will not stop under any conditions” in response to Black Lives Matter protesters.
Voters may have tolerated that. But earlier this month, the Beaver County Times reported that Bernstine had encouraged his 5-year old son to smoke a cigar and use vulgar language about women in videos posted to social media.
That seems to be a breaking point for some, such as Dona Boots, an 82-year-old Ellwood City resident.
On Saturday, she sat outside Bernstine’s legislative office with a dozen other locals in a small event organized by Peffer.
She held a handmade sign declaring, “I want higher morals!” Her foot was planted on a Bernstine lawn sign.
Bernstine’s actions, Boots said, had “twisted the mind of a child,” potentially with long-lasting consequences.
So, she dropped off her mail-in ballot for Peffer.
“I was tired of parties anyhow, I just want what’s right to be done,” Boots added. She declined to share who else she voted for.
Boots’ anger at Bernstine has been echoed throughout the Republican Party establishment. In Harrisburg, House GOP leaders called for him to resign, while the Beaver County Republican Party rescinded its endorsement.
“The videos that were recently released jeopardize the integrity of our endorsement if we were to have allowed our endorsement to stand,” said Jim Christiana, the party’s chair and Bernstine’s former colleague in the House.
Bernstine apologized for the videos, even saying that more damaging stories could come out., But he refused to resign. He argued that his constituents should have the choice to decide whether he’d return to Harrisburg.
“These were private messages,” Bernstine told the Capital-Star. “If people ever had their private messages or private pictures or private videos [released], I’m sure they wouldn’t be looked on in a flattering way either.”
He added he is trying to run on his record, eschewing both parties and pointing to job growth in the district, and the endorsement of pro-gun groups.
A heartfelt Hail Mary
Bernstine currently represents the 10th Legislative District. Find it on a map, and it appears to be like many others in Western Pennsylvania — a misshapen amalgamation of rural and post-industrial areas that helped elect Trump in 2016.
According to the progressive website Daily Kos, Trump took almost 60 percent of the vote here in 2016. But Gov. Tom Wolf lost it by a single percentage point in 2018.
That’s because the district’s meandering lines, which cut across three counties — Beaver, Lawrence and Butler counties — hide diverse and still active pockets of Democratic enthusiasm, argued Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh history professor who studies grassroots politics in the age of Trump.
While the district includes many small suburbs and rural expanses that vote Republican, it also includes the small city of Beaver Falls, and Slippery Rock, in northern Butler County, which is home to a state university.
There, Democratic activism is usually a mix of older, college educated women horrified by Trump and the remnants of the labor movement. And in the four years since Trump, they’ve gone out of their way to recruit candidates, Putnam said.
“It’s really clear if Bernstine weren’t immersed in this scandal, it isn’t a district that anyone expects would be flippable by a Democrat,” Putnam said.
But, when a candidate does implode, it means there is a heartfelt Hail Mary candidate in the field to present an alternative, Putnam added.
The Democrat who’s taking on this longshot run is Kolbe Cole, a 34-year-old Beaver Falls resident, who creates after school programs for students.
Cole’s website lists ending gerrymandering, paid maternity leave, and increasing education funding among her priorities. She added she’d take her cues from the district on other hot button issues, such as abortion.
On Saturday, she was in Ellwood City as part of a rare set of in-person get out the vote rallies hosted by organized labor. The location is also noteworthy because Bernstine picked a fight with local officials in Ellwood City over the borough’s electric utility, sparking local animosity.
Bernstine “fell into an unfortunate hole called selfishness,” Cole told the Capital-Star. “He’s pandering to who gives him money and who gives him endorsements and not necessarily listening to his constituents.”
“By making that huge mistake, he created a lot of bad feelings in the area,” Cole added.
Doubt comes in
Cole’s Saturday speaking engagement also featured a last-minute special guest in Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.
After a 15 minute speech railing against corporate Republican interests, he ended with a honest, but surprising admission.
“These are hard counties to win these days,” Casey told the crowd of roughly 40 people. “I remember when I was growing up it was a lot easier for Democrats.”
That fraying of the old Democratic coalition in western Pennsylvania is clear from Peffer’s run.
Peffer, a 36-year-old Ellwood City resident, told the Capital-Star he was tired of finger pointing in Harrisburg between both parties, particularly over the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He hopes his local roots — he still works in his family’s deer processing business alongside his own tech startup — and personal story of overcoming addiction will earn him voters’ trust.
“I embody this district, and I know how the people here live,” Peffer told the Capital-Star.
He’s already earned one endorsement, from a local trade union. And the yards throughout Ellwood City indicate some Democrats, despite voting blue at the top of the ticket, are willing to give the newcomer a chance.
One Democrat, who declined to give her name, said she already voted for Peffer. She had donated to Cole, but had not heard from the candidate since.
In the meantime, Peffer knocked on her door. The two chatted, and when he left, he walked away with her vote. She’s already dropped off her mail-in ballot.
But now, she’s heard rumors that Peffer is cutting deals to join Republicans if he is elected to Harrisburg. It makes her nervous that she might have made a mistake.
But, she argued, “not a political mistake. From my heart I think he would do a great job.”
And it’s not just Democrats who look at Peffer and see a potential spoiler.
Nicole Schilling, 40, from neighboring Ellport, showed up to Peffer’s rally at Bernstine’s office to give the independent a piece of her mind.
Schilling said she’s backing Bernstine because he was a Republican, and that “we can’t have any more Democrats in office.” She fears Peffer is running to siphon conservatives votes and clear a path for Cole.
Despite the rumors, Peffer said he has not been approached by either party about who he’d caucus with in Harrisburg, nor has he made a choice.
If elected, the decision could, at minimum, influence the committees Peffer sits on. If the chamber ends up close, Peffer could even influence which party holds the Speaker’s gavel in 2021.
But all that first requires Peffer to win, a tall order for an independent in Pennsylvania. The last unaffiliated candidate to win an election was state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, of Jefferson County.
Always a Republican, he ran as an independent and won in a three-way race in 2000 against a Republican embroiled in scandal, and a Democrat. After winning, he rejoined the GOP.
Christiana, the Beaver County GOP chair, said that the party would not use resources to oppose Bernstine this year, and if he wins, Bernstine could try to regain the trust of the Republican committee for 2022.
But that election, Christiana pointed out, would be a primary election in a newly drawn district.
“We will reassess the situation on November 4 and wait to see what that landscape looks like,” he said.
If Bernstine makes it that far will fall to the voters. And it isn’t clear how voters will feel about the videos that have shined a spotlight on the race.
Schilling seemed to still have Bernstine’s back.
“As a parent, I know I’ve made mistakes. I wish I could have done things differently,” Schilling said.
The video’s publication, she added, seems to be part of a “smear campaign” against Bernstine.
Boots agreed in a small way with Schilling and Christiana, thinking that Bernstine could make penance. But her timeline for that wasn’t on the scale of petty politics.
“God will forgive Bernstine,” Boots said. “The sad thing is, people will never forget it.”