Drive 30 minutes east from Pittsburgh, and you’ll enter Westmoreland County – one of Pennsylvania’s most conservative areas. Over the course of two decades, Westmoreland has become ground zero for the Rust Belt’s GOP shift. For perspective, in 1998 the county’s 136,700 registered Democratic voters dwarfed the 70,600 registered Republicans, propelling their candidates to wins in nearly every local, state, and national election. But in 2020, Donald Trump took 64% of the vote.
In May’s state primary, the Republican trend continued when Westmoreland voted by similar margins in support of a constitutional amendment curtailing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers – a clear rebuke of his excessive pandemic restrictions. Then, in a special election, county voters favored Leslie Rossi, a GOP state House candidate who had painted her home like an American flag and erected a 14-foot Trump cutout.
Since the Obama era, Westmoreland’s former Democrats have switched parties over issues related to economic populism and social conservatism. But last year’s social unrest and urban violence, including in Pittsburgh, led even more county Democrats to change their affiliation. In a paraphrase of Ronald Reagan’s classic remark, Westmoreland Sheriff James Albert put it this way when joining the GOP: “As a lifelong public servant and member of law enforcement, I have not left the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party has left me.”
Though Trump’s presidency fueled intraparty tensions, including in Pennsylvania, Westmorelanders feel their own political compass has remained fixed amid the GOP’s evolving platforms. As one resident in Greensburg, the county seat, told me, “Time has pretty much stood still around here for the last 30 years. And that’s how we like it.”
But while Westmoreland’s silent majority stands still, its progressive activists have increasingly mobilized. Last year, for example, along that half-hour drive from Pittsburgh, incendiary anti-Trump billboards displayed misrepresented quotes from the former president. Today, billboards feature left-leaning messages such as “Ban Assault Weapons” and “Teach your children about systemic racism.” Meanwhile, art displays that promote the central tenets of Critical Race Theory find their way to local museums and outdoor areas.
Who is behind this progressive “resistance” in Pennsylvania’s heartland? According to the New York Times, Westmoreland’s radical campaigners operate like a secret society, complete with hand signals, invite-only gatherings, and leftist Facebook groups. Overall, they’re united in purpose and strategic in approach – but this hardly suggests a grassroots effort.
As is so often the case, Westmoreland’s Left is less a coalition of local dissenters than a team of professional activists funded by out-of-town millions – and occasionally, even public tax dollars. Anti-gun billboards, for example, are paid for by a PAC involving prominent liberals, such as former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. Meanwhile, critical race theory displays and messaging are funded by groups such as PA Start and the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition, both recipients of taxpayer-funded grants and gifts from corporations like Heinz.
The progressive campaign, though, isn’t limited to leftist messaging on major thoroughfares. In fact, Westmoreland’s liberal wing has clear-eyed electoral ambitions. In 2019, for example, the county commissioner elections turned into a bitter struggle between Democratic incumbents – termed the “Westmoreland County Squad” after the congressional coalition led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes – and their Republican challengers.
The local fight concerned the lobbying power of public-sector unions, whom Democrats had empowered to influence county spending. The unions’ left-leaning positions on social issues, such as a county diversity plan, became part of Democratic candidates’ platforms, too. This, in turn, unified Republican opposition. Since then, the most prominent Westmoreland Squad member has signaled her support for replacing Westmoreland’s Flag Day observance with Juneteenth – but only if the unions agree.
Westmoreland’s progressives are also keen on dominating local school boards. The county chapter of PA United, a subsidiary of the George Soros-funded Democracy Alliance, has put forward several candidates seeking to make local school districts’ curriculum and practices more progressive. The candidates present a neutral, pragmatic face to local media but elsewhere tout their progressive credentials. Westmorelanders, though, likely wish to avoid the parent-led battles over ideological school boards and identity-driven curriculum currently afflicting Loudoun County, Va., and suburban Philadelphia. This November, such issues are at stake in Westmoreland’s elections.
On guns, law and order, family values, and education, the county isn’t a great fit for progressive activists or the elite millionaires who fund them. But post-Trump, such a conservative area remains a target for culture war assaults waged by “resistance” activists with deep pockets. For some reason, western Pennsylvania’s towns, with their thriving small business economies, neighborhood safety, solidarity, and educational opportunity, have become a bugbear for the Left.
But most Westmorelanders still consider these community features to be proud of – and defend.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
Andrew Cuff writes on conservative issues and policy reform from Latrobe, Pa. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewJCuff.