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Ohio Democrats in heavily Republican Appalachia hope to dent GOP dominance in presidential election

Biden leads in Pennsylvania, tied in Ohio
CBS News poll: Biden leads in Pennsylvania, even with Trump in Ohio 06:33

Portsmouth, Ohio — Democrats in Ohio's Appalachian region are approaching the 2020 general election with a mix of optimism and concern. Though there's little chance Joe Biden could win over this heavily conservative area, they're hoping he can diminish Republicans' strength enough here to win the state.

"I'm terrified. I have said a hundred times I don't think that there has ever been an election in which I was old enough to vote that I was actually afraid of who might win," said Mary Jane Tullius, a 71-year-old Democrat living in Beverly, Ohio.

Downtown Portsmouth, Ohio, October, 2020. CBS News / Jack Turman

In 2016, President Trump made significant gains in Ohio's Appalachian region, which encompasses Ohio's southern and southeastern counties. He pitched an "America First" message that promised to bring back traditional blue-collar jobs.

President Obama lost Ohio's southern counties, but it was a much tighter race than in 2016. In 2012, he lost Scioto County, which includes the Ohio River town of Portsmouth, by just over 1 point. In 2016, Mr. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the same region by more than 36 points.

A recent CBS News Battleground Tracker poll showed Mr. Trump and Biden tied among likely Ohio voters. The battleground state trended favorably for Republicans after Mr. Trump won the state by 8 points in 2016 — after Mr. Obama had won the state twice. Biden's support is currently stronger than Clinton's was in Ohio's Appalachian region. CBS News' poll showed Mr. Trump with a 25-point lead over Biden among White voters without a college degree, who make up a majority in the region. 

Democrats in the region are very enthusiastic about their party in 2020, largely because of Mr. Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and their unhappiness with the president.

Downtown Portsmouth, Ohio, October 2020. CBS News / Jack Turman

"We're in a mess right now and folks need to be paying attention to the political climate and trying to modify the current toxic environment that we're in, because there are a lot of folks who are disenfranchised, who are becoming further disenfranchised," said Dr. Robert Lawson, a teacher at the Ohio Valley Christian School.

Katherine Fuller, who works remotely for PNC Bank and was born and raised in Scioto County, moved back to the area to be closer to her family after schools and daycares closed in Cincinnati, where she had been living. Fuller thinks Mr. Trump has handled the pandemic "very poorly," and she says she's now balancing working remotely, with caring for her four-year-old son. 

"I am speaking with customers all day from home, and I'm expected to, you know, have a quiet background and not be fighting with a four-year-old while I'm on the clock," she added.

Katherine Fuller and her son at their home in Portsmouth, Ohio. CBS News / Jack Turman

Mr. Trump's handling of COVID-19 was also the "last straw" for Eric Kephas, a lifelong Republican who says he donated part of his first paycheck to the Republican National Committee. Kephas, a Scioto County resident who voted for Gary Johnson in 2016, cast his ballot for Biden, the first Democrat he has ever supported.

 "There's a refusal to accept the basic facts and science if they're inconvenient or they don't fit with a certain narrative," he explained. "I think it's dangerous and I just think it's absolutely disqualifying for the office."

Bob McCollister, who has volunteered on Democratic presidential campaigns since 2008 and is volunteering for Biden's campaign in Lawrence County, said he's starting to feel Democratic enthusiasm levels comparable to Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign. He thinks Democrats shouldn't count out rural Ohio, citing Mr. Obama's efforts in the region to keep the race close in southern Ohio to stay competitive.

"We didn't win it, but we would keep the margin close enough that the big urban centers in Ohio could put us over the top," McCollister added.

The Biden campaign recently announced a radio ad buy that includes several southern rural Ohio counties as part of an effort to engage the small pockets of Democratic voters in the region. The campaign has also focused on relational organizing efforts, which is led by Jimmy Dahman, who worked for Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg's campaign.

The Trump campaign touts its field program in Ohio, too, recently noting that its operation has knocked on over 3 million doors and has made 12 million voter contacts. Republican enthusiasm in the region is evident — rural streets are dotted with yard signs — some support Mr. Trump and others oppose abortion.

File: Portsmouth, Ohio Getty Images

Republicans here are confident that Biden won't peel off Mr. Trump's 2016 support, pointing to the economy, his support for the 2nd Amendment and opposition to abortion. Kim Walters, who lives in Washington County and recently organized a car rally in support of law enforcement, thinks Mr. Trump is strong on the economy and national security.

"We have to take care of our own and we have to keep getting stronger," she said."And at that time, then we can look at helping other people. But our country itself has suffered, suffered for so long."

To approach Obama's margins, Dan Shirey, a Biden supporter who is the business manager at a local union in Portsmouth, said Biden needs to convey a pro-labor message to sway union members who may have abandoned the Democratic Party in 2016. Still, he says he thinks some members at his union tend to support Mr. Trump. 

The region has been plagued by poverty and opioid addiction, but the manufacturing industry saw steady job growth in Ohio after the Great Recession. However, the manufacturing industry slowed at the end of 2019 and job losses rose in the early part of the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Manufacturing jobs rebounded slightly over the past month, but over the past year, 38,000 manufacturing jobs were lost, according to state seasonally adjusted data. CBS News polling shows that likely voters in Ohio believe Mr. Trump will do a better job with  economic issues and protecting manufacturing jobs than Biden would. 

But the Appalachian region has not seen a manufacturing boom under Mr. Trump's presidency and job growth in towns is the result of local and state efforts, two mayors told CBS News. The mayor of Belpre, Ohio, Democrat Michael Lorentz, said the city has added 400 jobs in the medical services field in the past decade and traditional blue collar industrial jobs are "slowly drying up" in the region, as more jobs prioritize information technology and electrical instrumentation.

"If we are going to do something, we need to raise the money or find the funding on our own," Lorentz added.

The mayors say they need the federal government's help with infrastructure investment to stimulate their economies and to support new plants. Ironton Mayor Samuel Cramblit, a Democrat, said federal leaders have left small communities behind.

"It's imperative they start listening to us about the needs of our communities across the country," Cramblit wrote in a text message. "Collectively, small communities are still a majority and are being forgotten at the highest level."

Politicians will say "anything to make people feel like they're on their side," but feelings towards the region quickly changes once elections are over, Fuller said, noting, "As soon as voting is over, yeah, there's not much done with Appalachia." 

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