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Could Pennsylvania's Democratic governor deliver Trump the election?

Could Pennsylvania's Democratic governor deliver Trump the election?
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At last week’s vice presidential debate, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisObama to campaign for Biden in Florida Biden appears on Brené Brown's podcast to discuss 'empathy, unity and courage' The Hill's Campaign Report: Obama to hit the campaign trail l Biden's eye-popping cash advantage l New battleground polls favor Biden MORE (D-Calif.) lamented the state of America’s economy, blaming it on the “catastrophe and the failure of leadership” in the Trump administration. That would be news to Pennsylvanians in the industrial towns that once fueled the nation’s economy. It certainly isn’t the case in Williamsport, once known as the “Lumber Capital of the World.” 

In September, almost 450 Pennsylvanians — accustomed to waking up to an alarm and going to work — abruptly lost their jobs at Shop-Vac, a Williamsport-based manufacturer of wet/dry vacuums. Though Shop-Vac’s financial struggles preceded COVID-19, the company confirmed that the economic crisis led to an inescapable outcome: the closure of its three city plants and permanent layoffs.

But the cause wasn’t President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE, who, for all his faults, has consistently implored state governors to reopen their economies. Instead, the Keystone State’s economic casualties lie at the feet of Democratic Gov. Tom WolfTom WolfExclusive poll: Biden up in Mich., Pa., tied with Trump in Fla. Pennsylvania's mail-in voting free-for-all Could Pennsylvania's Democratic governor deliver Trump the election? MORE

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Indeed, the tragedy of a nationwide brand closing in its home city illustrates what Pennsylvanians confront under Wolf’s pandemic-era stewardship. Small businesses are going broke, layoffs abound, and main streets look like ghost towns. 

Shop-Vac’s plant closures came shortly after a Trump-appointed federal judge delivered a damning slap down of Wolf’s lockdown policies. Since then, bipartisan criticism of Wolf’s shutdowns has only intensified. This week, the Democratic state auditor general released a preliminary report confirming that Wolf’s business closure policies were inconsistent, subjective and unfair. Sadly, negative assessments of Wolf can’t reverse the effects of his COVID-19 policies. 

This economic fate — not the minute-by-minute election cycle — weighs on voters’ minds in Pennsylvania. Just weeks before Election Day, polling consistently indicates that the crucial swing state’s voters consider “the economy” as their top issue.

It feels like a decade ago, but in his first presidential debate with Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE, Trump illustrated why he won Pennsylvanians’ votes four years ago when he noted that Democratic governors such as Wolf are using the shutdown to hurt Republicans, but instead are devastating workers. 

“They think they’re hurting us by keeping them closed,” Trump said. “They’re hurting people. People know what to do. They can social distance. They can wash their hands; they can wear masks. They can do whatever they want, but they’ve got to open these states up.”

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“It’s not fair,” Trump said. “You’re talking about almost it’s like being in prison.”

Then, following his coronavirus diagnosis, Trump reiterated this message, telling Americans to not let the virus “dominate your life.” At that moment, Trump wasn’t speaking to outraged pundits or white-collar suburbanites. Instead, he was talking to the often forgotten millions of men and women in Pennsylvania — and nationwide — who can’t work remotely, let alone pay for their children’s tutoring or daycare when schools are closed.  

In Pennsylvania, just ask the 332,000 restaurant and bar workers — about half of the entire industry — who have been laid off since Wolf’s shutdown took effect in March. According to a National Restaurant Association report, 91 percent of the state’s industry business owners have laid off or furloughed their workers — many because their businesses are permanently closed. A new analysis confirms the effects of this trend: Pennsylvania ranks among the top states where people need a loan because of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

This economic tumult is hastening an ongoing political realignment in Pennsylvania, where Republicans have dramatically cut Democrats’ voter registration advantage. But it’s not surprising that lifelong Democratic voters are turning to Trump on the economy rather than accepting Wolf’s leadership. As Wolf’s approval ratings plummet, Pennsylvania’s high unemployment — currently 10.3 percent — remains persistent. 

Wolf isn’t up for reelection, nor running against Trump, but his policies are. The media have called out the governor for spurning transparency and refusing to provide verifiable data to back up his shutdown decisions. Wolf has vetoed almost every reopening bill sent to him by lawmakers. This means Pennsylvania’s devastated economy is wholly owned by the Democratic governor — a reality that places Joe Biden at a state-level disadvantage. 

In the country’s most important swing state, lingering anger over Wolf’s coronavirus response could deliver an encore victory to Donald Trump.

Jennifer Stefano is the chief strategy officer and vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @jenniferstefano.