In Trump Country, disappointment, anger mingle with hope for Biden to unite

MIFFLINTOWN, Pa. (Reuters) - In Pennsylvania it doesn’t get much “redder” than Juniata County, a predominantly white and rural region dotted with picturesque churches, livestock farms and factories which U.S. President Donald Trump carried in the election with 80 percent of the vote.

Kayla Doyle, manager of the GridIron Pub poses shortly after major TV networks projected Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the presidential election, in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, U.S., November 7, 2020. REUTERS/Nathan Layne

So it was with a mix of disappointment, suspicion and resignation that residents took in news on Saturday that their state had tipped the presidential race in Joe Biden’s favor, denying Trump another four years.

“It’s sickening and sad,” said Kayla Doyle, a 35-year-old Trump supporter and manager of the GridIron Pub on Main Street in Mifflintown, the Juniata county seat about 45 miles (72 km) northwest of Harrisburg, the state capital. “I think it’s rigged.”

Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania, called on Saturday by all major TV networks, gave him the 20 Electoral College votes he needed to prevail. But it was achieved by running up big margins in and around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with less populated areas like Juniata, with about 25,000 people, strongly behind Trump.

The rural-urban divide highlights the daunting task facing Biden to win over voters outside the big cities who are skeptical of his agenda and believe Trump was the first president to govern with their interests at heart.

The oversized Trump sign in front of her century-old brick home makes it clear who Crystal Lauver, 54, supports. She said she did not accept the projections by TV networks, which she does not trust. She said Democrats had sought to steal the election through fraud, were Communists and hated America, and predicted Trump would successfully contest the outcome in court.

Herbie Stoner, a 53-year-old Trump supporter, said he was suspicious of the Democratic Party and the integrity of the vote. He is also worried that a Biden administration won’t be able to match the job growth Trump delivered to the region.

But Stoner, echoing the sentiment of most of the more than 50 Trump supporters interviewed by Reuters across Pennsylvania this week, said he was willing to give Biden a chance.

“We are going to have to accept it and hope he does the best for our country,” said Stoner, who works for a septic service company in Juniata County. “If he steps up and does his job we’re all for him.”

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Residents say they benefited from the Trump presidency, citing low unemployment and the dismantling of regulations that hurt farms and factories. Empire Kosher, a producer of poultry, is Juniata County’s top employer, with about 750 workers.

They also generally backed Trump’s trade war with China, which they say was needed to level the playing field for farmers and manufacturers, even if it brought some short term pain. Many people said they were worried Biden would be too soft on China.

And they saw very little wrong in how Trump handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Juniata County residents said they thought the virus had been overhyped for political gain by Democrats. Bars and restaurants like the GridIron Pub are not strict on social distancing. Despite rising cases in the state, people hug, kiss and shake hands, and very few wear masks.

Nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May also likely helped Trump in Juniata as voters welcomed his “law-and-order” stance. Demonstrations by Black Lives Matter supporters in front of the courthouse in Mifflintown have been met by counter protesters, who have at times shouted racial slurs, two protesters told Reuters.

Some residents see the protesters as overly confrontational and bringing division to a county which is 97% white. On Friday evening, a man in a pick-up truck revved his engine and screamed “All Lives Matter” to a handful of protesters on Main Street.

Shay Ellis, who has organized the protests, said poverty and lack of opportunity was behind the affinity for Trump.

“I think it’s a grasping-at-straws desperation to find a club to belong to and to find somebody to blame,” she said.

On Saturday at The Bread of Life Restaurant patrons in two adjacent booths were discussing the election. They agreed that Democrats were trying to steal it, and that Biden had dementia and would just be a puppet of the far left, echoing Trump’s words on the campaign trail.

One middle-aged man said he would never accept Biden as president. A woman agreed but said that she would leave the situation “in God’s hands”.

Like many rural areas in the United States, Juniata is religious and socially conservative. One of the factors behind Trump’s enduring support here was his opposition to abortion.

On Saturday in The Sentinel local newspaper one writer tried to help readers come to grips with Trump’s impending loss with a column titled, “Despite results, God has it under control”

“Yes, there will be a time of sadness, and maybe even depression for some, but eventually, we can turn the corner,” Debby Renninger wrote. “We’ll be OK!”

reporting by Nathan Layne in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania; editing by Grant McCool