How bellwether Northampton County’s neighbor to the east has kept its conservative roots

This is one in a series of stories that are part of Swing County, Swing State, a collaborative project between lehighvalleylive.com and nj.com that explores Northampton County’s critical role in the upcoming presidential election.

On inauguration day in 2017, SCC Concrete held a watch party at their Lopatcong Township headquarters, complete with a red, white and blue cake that proclaimed “God bless Donald Trump.”

Owner Rocky Stine said he’ll do it again if the president wins re-election. And while pollsters give Joe Biden the edge in November, there’s little question how Stine and the majority of his neighbors in Warren County will be voting.

“I see more and more Trump signs and flags,” Stine said. In this county, he estimated, “It’s going to be a landslide.”

He’s got history, not just lawn signs, to back up the prediction.

Warren County is one of New Jersey’s most consistently Republican counties, favoring the GOP candidate in every presidential race for more than 50 years.

It’s an outlier in New Jersey, which has soundly supported Democrats for president in every race since it went for George H. W. Bush in 1988. Only two counties, Ocean and Sussex, went more red than Warren County in the 2016 election, when Warren County favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by 26 points.

Which is why it might be a bit surprising that just across the Delaware River is a Pennsylvania county that has long been viewed as one of the most important swing counties in the country when it comes to presidential races. Voters in Northampton County have flipped for different parties over the years but almost always end up picking the winner. In the last century, they’ve backed the winning presidential candidate all but three times.

So how is it that one of the most solidly purple counties in the region — inundated by politicians and pollsters every four years — shares a border with a Republican stronghold where no Democratic presidential candidate would bother to campaign?

Matt Krayton, a Democratic political consultant, said it is not uncommon that neighboring counties end up having such different politics.

“It happens all the time, especially if you’re crossing state lines,” he said.

A look a section of Donaldson’s Farm along Allen Road and Harmony Lane in Warren County, NJ. on Sept. 25, 2020. Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleyl

Krayton, founder of the Caldwell public relations firm Publitics, said it generally comes down to the demographics. A place as rural, white and blue-collar as Warren County fits the profile for voting Republican.

Though Northampton County has similar education and income levels, it is slightly more diverse and has bigger cities with new industries and a lower cost of living that has lured new residents from parts of New York and New Jersey. Voters’ values here have evolved over the years, but many are moderates who sometimes split the ticket, backing candidates from different parties.

The identity of the Warren County voter — just like the relationship Warren County has with the Lehigh Valley and the rest of the state — is also complicated.

“They’re independent thinkers,” said James Kern III, 32, a Republican freeholder.

He noted Warren County voters have been known to snub the big party candidates. They backed Steve Longegan over Chris Christie for governor in 2008, and voters in the 2016 Democratic primary picked Bernie Sanders over Clinton. He thinks that independent spirit is why Trump — who portrayed himself as a party politics outsider in 2016 — appealed to them so much.

Locally, they tend to elect fiscal conservatives who want to keep government small, according to Doug Steinhardt, state Republican Committee chairman and a five-term mayor of Lopatcong.

“We have some of the lowest debt in the state,” Steinhardt said.

There’s no sign of Northampton County’s purpleness rubbing off on its neighbor in New Jersey. But the proximity is affecting Warren County and its politics in one new way: as the Lehigh Valley gets built up with more warehouse and distribution centers thanks to its strategic location, developers have started looking east.

They’ve proposed similar projects in Warren County, near I-80 in the north and I-78 in the south, but it remains to be seen if the county — and its voters — will allow this shift for the rural county.

More than ‘one big farm’

Some parts of Warren County feel like they could be stuck in time, or straight out of the rolling hills of Iowa. Just 50 miles from Manhattan, fields of corn and hay stretch for miles, livestock graze in pastures and in some areas, you see more farm supply stores than fast food joints.

The Warren County Farmers Fair is the event of the year, and campaigning local politicians don’t miss it. Recent posts in a local Facebook group offered chicken feed for sale and a “very friendly” pet rooster, free to a good home.

Afternoon at the Warren County Farmers Fair

Spectators watch the Tractor Pull competition during the Warren County Farmers Fair on July 31, 2019. Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleylive.com

Chris Vitalos, a board member of the county Democratic Committee who moved to Washington Borough 15 years ago, said the area has an old-timey charm.

“I grew up in the Lehigh Valley and it was rural then, lots of cornfields, and now I go there and it’s warehouses,” Vitalos said. “But I see Warren County as being what the Lehigh Valley was 30 or 40 years ago.”

Kern said people tend to imagine the county as “one big farm,” but there’s more to it than that.

From the industrial legacy of Phillipsburg and Hackettstown’s hip college-town vibe, to the Delaware Water Gap bordering the Poconos region, Warren County contains multitudes in its 363 square miles.

Likewise, the identity of the area’s approximately 105,000 residents varies. Phillipsburg residents might feel more like an extension of the Lehigh Valley across the river, farmers in the southern part of the county might feel more connected to Hunterdon County and young people in Hackettstown might see it more as an extension of Morris County, Kern said.

And given the very different, very Democratic politics that dominate state government, for many it can feel like the goings-on in Trenton are a world away, instead of just 40 miles away.

The county is more blue-collar than some of its neighbors. Nearby counties of Hunterdon, Morris and Somerset have the highest median household incomes in the state, while Warren County ranks squarely in the middle of the pack.

It’s also cheaper to own a home there than in neighboring New Jersey counties, according to 2018 census data on median homeowner costs. Those costs are substantially lower across the river in Northampton County, the data shows.

And while the population in Northampton County has been rising along with the revitalization of Easton and Bethlehem, it’s been declining in Warren County. The county lost roughly 3,400 residents since 2010, or about 3% of its population, according to 2019 census estimates.

It’s something several politicians attributed to the loss of big employers over the years, including big plants like Ingersoll-Rand that used to employ generations of residents in Phillipsburg. As businesses move elsewhere, so do residents.

Steinhardt said there is not a lot of economic development creating job opportunities, so many people commute elsewhere for work. But he thinks for a lot them, that’s part of the area’s charm.

“It’s a place that’s convenient enough to get to those urban centers if you want to get to them, but when you come home, you come home to just a totally different lifestyle,” he said.

The county has not drawn as many Big Apple commuters as you might think, given it’s a little more than an hour’s drive to New York City, and the property prices and taxes are much cheaper than closer counties.

It’s something Vitalos attributes to the lack of easy or speedy public transit to the city. The Montclair-Boonton line comes to Hackettstown on the county’s easternmost point, but it’s more than two hours to the city.

What do Warren County voters see for their future?

“This farm right here is being sold to a developer, almost 100 acres,” Joel Schnetzer said, jabbing a finger at the soybean fields passing by his farm truck’s driver’s side window on a recent Saturday morning.

A third-generation farmer, Schnetzer will lose the soybean field he rents in Washington Township. But he hates to see any developers eat up the good cropland, especially when they get municipal tax deals to do it.

“We all know there’s less farmland every day. You can’t remake it,” he said.

Joel Joel Schnetzer looks over his hereford cows on his 300-acre farm in Franklin Township, N.J. Sept. 19, 2020.

Joel Schnetzer looks over his hereford cows on his 300-acre farm in Franklin Township, N.J. Sept. 19, 2020.Rebecca Everett | For NJ.com

Seldat Inc., an international distribution company, wants to build a mixed-use development on the land near Route 31 featuring light industry, 2,000 housing units and businesses to serve the needs of the worker-residents. The company is asking the township to approve its plans and a 30-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement.

The fact is, the Lehigh Valley is flourishing, in part thanks to favorable tax deals for developers and less restrictions, according to Kern. As Northampton County is built out, some developers are looking to rural spots in Warren County as the next frontier.

Whether the county will embrace the same efforts to draw new industry and residents remains to be seen, but Valley developer Jaindl Land Co.’s proposal for an 800,000-square-foot warehouse in White Township is facing opposition from local and county politicians and residents on both sides of the aisle.

But in Phillipsburg, redevelopment is welcomed. Mayor Todd M. Tersigni touts the creation of Bridge Point 78, a sprawling 2.8 million-square-foot warehouse complex on the former Ingersoll-Rand site billed as “the Lehigh Valley alternative.”

“The population I believe will increase now, because of these jobs,” he said.

Bridge Point 78 warehouses in Phillipsburg and Lopatcong Township

This September 2019 photo shows construction on the Bridge Point 78 warehouses in Phillipsburg and Lopatcong Township, on the former Ingersoll Rand property. Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

It’s not entirely clear how interested residents are in drawing jobs, and new people, elsewhere in the county. Steinhardt said people here like smaller government and the quiet life, even if that means traveling for work or other things. And he doesn’t want anyone moving here from a more urban area to expect to change that.

“To the extent that people move out to Warren County, moving away from all the things that made their communities more expensive and congested, we’ve done a good job over the last 16 years to make sure that those people don’t bring those types of changes with them,” he said. “So the county has remained relatively affordable.”

Are Warren County’s politics evolving?

County voter rolls tell a story of an electorate that’s becoming more polarized.

While more than half of the county’s voters were unaffiliated 15 years ago, that number is now a third, as thousands more Republicans and Democrats registered to vote or switched their affiliation.

Fifteen years ago, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2:1, but as of Sept. 1, the ratio is more like 3:2.

Steinhardt and Kern see the pendulum swinging more conservative during the Trump era, pointing to traditionally-Democratic Phillipsburg electing a Republican mayor, Tersigni, and several councilors last year.

“You see a lot of Trump signs — some homemade ones,” Kern said. “I don’t see a lot of Biden signs, but he’ll get 40% of the vote in the county, so it is here.”

The number of voters in both parties has increased over the last 20 years, but Democrats have doubled their ranks while Republicans saw a 75% increase.

“Different people have moved here. Different voters,” said Ethel Conry, a Democrat and the first Black woman on the Washington Borough Council. She moved from New York City and said she knows other transplants from South Plainfield, Orange and Scotch Plains.

Liberals have also been more visible lately. As like many places across the country, activists have rallied in the borough and Phillipsburg in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The area is becoming gradually more diverse, with its minority population growing by 5% from 2010 to 2019, according to census data. Conry said she and her children experienced racism years ago, but she’s seen things improve since then.

“I’ve lived here 31 years and it has changed quite a bit,” she said.

Warren County 2020

A view of Washington Avenue in Washington Borough, N.J., on Sept. 25, 2020. Saed Hindash | For lehighvalleyl

Both Kern and Conry agree, on a local level, many people vote for who they think is best for the job, and they don’t care for party politics getting in the way.

And for any party diehards who wants to effect change in national politics — given the near certainty that the county will vote for Trump in November — they can always make the short drive across the river to Northampton County for rallies and campaigning.

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