US midterms: Democrats challenge Trump economy rhetoric

Although the president touts his economic numbers, Democrats in Pennsylvania say his policies do not help average voters who are just as concerned about healthcare.

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    Pennsylvania, USA - Sales are soaring at H & K Equipment in Coraopolis, just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And General Manager Patrick Koch is quick to give President Donald Trump a lot of the credit.

    Koch said orders for his industrial equipment - heavy duty forklifts, lift trucks and giant railcar movers - started pouring in after the 2016 elections.

    "We noticed an uptick right away," said Koch on a recent tour of the business that his father started in the1980s.

    "A lot of people were waiting in 2016 to spend money until after November. It was like an opening of the floodgates right after that," he told Al Jazeera.

    Tax cuts this year have only added to what he described as "consumer confidence", making his clients willing to invest in new equipment. In 2018, he hired 55 new employees, a 20 percent increase in his workforce, each worker getting paid, he said, no less than $15 an hour.

    His biggest problem now is finding mechanics who are qualified to build and repair his machines.

    Pennsylvania has been a testing ground for many of President's Trump's economic policies, benefiting from both the deregulation of coal mining and natural gas and the imposition of tariffs on foreign-made steel. But here in the 17th Congressional District, home to H & K, Republicans have reason to be worried in November's midterm elections. Democrats believe they can flip the seat currently held by Keith Rothfus, and perhaps five more in the state, as they attempt to regain the majority in Congress.

    Rothfus, 56, is facing a challenge from Conor Lamb, a 34-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor. In a strange twist, Lamb is also an incumbent, having just won a special election in the 18th district. The dueling incumbents are running against each other after the courts ruled that the state's old voting districts had been unconstitutionally drawn. 

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    The moderate pro-union, pro-natural gas Lamb pulled off his first win in one of the old districts where Donald Trump won over Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016. A recent Monmouth University poll now gives him a double digit lead over Rothfus in the 17th district, which is more left leaning.

    But Lamb cautioned dozens of volunteers who had gathered at this headquarters in suburban Pittsburgh not to get complacent. He got more than a few laughs when he reminded people of "another candidate" who had done so in a recent election.

    In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the swing state, much to the surprise of pollsters and pundits. It was a narrow win, just 44,000 votes, and the first time in nearly 30 years Pennsylvania supported a Republican for president.

    Healthcare tops voters' concerns

    During a recent speech to rally the volunteers, the smooth-talking Lamb never once said the name Trump.

    Throughout the campaign, Lamb has avoided talking about the president. But he has called out House Speaker Paul Ryan for saying he would take away funding from Social Security, Medicare and other "entitlements" to pay for those hefty tax cuts primarily benefiting Wall Street.  

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    His campaign volunteers, however, say they are motivated by their opposition to Trump. Stacy Vernallis, a volunteer who suffers from a host of medical issues, including cancer said affordable healthcare is her top issue.

    "Obamacare saved my life," she said, explaining her commitment to electing Democrats. "I'm fighting for my life."

    President Trump may boast of record low unemployment, but for voters in the 17th Congressional District the number one issue in this election by far, according to a recent poll by Monmouth University, is healthcare. Job creation was a distant third.

    The challenge for Democrats is convincing Trump voters that they will do more than Republicans to keep costs down for people, even as the president holds rallies in the state to fire up his base.

    "All they see are these commercials that say 'this one is terrible, that one is terrible,' so everyone is evil," explained Richard Palmer of the group Working America, a political arm of the AFL-CIO union that represents working class folk that don't belong to a union.

    Healthcare is an economic issue ... Because people are worried about paying for it.

    Richard Palmer, Working America

    Palmer was out canvassing members when he met one woman who said she would probably vote for Rothfus because healthcare was her top issue and Rothfus, as his campaign ads point out, was a cancer survivor.

    Palmer encouraged her to read a handout explaining that Rothfus had voted in favour of a healthcare bill that would have taken coverage away from nearly 36,000 of his own constituents.

    "We think Lamb is better on this issue," he told her. Palmer said he has come across Trump voters who now regret their decision, but what he sees most of all is people who are exhausted by the angry tenor of today's politics. That's why he thinks Lamb's approach has been successful.

    "Healthcare is an economic issue," he pointed out. "Because people are worried about paying for it." The region's staggering opioid epidemic, he said, was also driving health concerns. 

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    "If you can show them this person cares about their well-being and their future, it's an easy flip."

    Workers likely to see their healthcare costs go up include those in the steel industry.

    Contract negotiations between Pittsburgh-based US Steel and the US Steelworkers union stalled over the company's demand that workers begin paying $145 a month for their insurance, according to the Washington Post.

    That's not sitting well with workers in the mills who are watching the company's profits soar and voted for Trump on the promise that he would make their America great again.

    But the company said it expected the cost of healthcare per employee to rise $19,000 by the end of 2019. Last week the local Allentown Morning Call reprinted the Post article about the ongoing talks under the headline: "Steelworkers Wonder Where the Windfall will Land."

    Both the union and the company seem to be playing their cards very close to the vest ahead of the election, saying little about the ongoing negotiations.

    So is Patrick Koch of H & K, when it comes to which candidate he is backing for Congress.

    "There are business friendly Democrats here and biz friendly Republicans," he said. Fed up with partisan politics and worried about the environment, Koch's main concern is how their positions will impact his business.

    As for the impact of his vote on the make-up of Congress?

    "We are trying to sell and move trucks," he said. "So it really doesn't matter much."

    Correction 16/10/2018: A previous version of this story stated that hourly rate at H & K Equipment was $22 an hour. The article has been corrected to say that the minimum hourly rate is $15 an hour. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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