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What impact will Tom Ridge’s endorsement of Biden have?

Matthew Rink
mrink@timesnews.com
Former Pennsylvania governor and Erie native Tom Ridge.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge, an Erie native and a Republican who served as the nation’s first director of Homeland Security, has made his dislike for President Donald Trump known for five years now.

On Sunday, Ridge took his opposition to the president a step further, doing something he refrained from in 2016: Ridge endorsed Trump’s Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“For me, voting is not just a privilege, but a responsibility,” Ridge concluded in an op-ed that first was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “And this year, I believe the responsible vote is for Joe Biden. It’s a vote for decency. A vote for the rule of law. And a vote for honest and earnest leadership. It’s time to put country over party. It’s time to dismiss Donald Trump.”

It will be the first time Ridge has voted for a Democrat for president, he noted in his endorsement of Biden.

Ridge compared the current state of America, with a pandemic having claimed more than 200,000 lives, to the crisis it faced after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The way the country has responded to the pandemic has many similarities to that period 19 years ago, Ridge said. “Those similarities, however, do not include presidential leadership.”

“Donald Trump has proven over these last four years he is incapable of such leadership,” Ridge wrote. “It is not within him. He lacks the empathy, integrity, intellect, and maturity to lead. He sows division along political, racial, and religious lines. And he routinely dismisses the opinions of experts who know far more about the subject at hand than he does — intelligence, military, and public health.”

But how much weight will Ridge’s endorsement of Biden carry with voters in throughout Pennsylvania, a state that voted for the Democratic presidential nominee for six straight elections until narrowly backing Trump in 2016?

“The endorsement probably does not have an impact on most voters,” said Robert Speel, an associate professor of political science at Penn State Behrend in Erie County. “But I think there are a small group of Republicans, especially maybe in Erie suburbs, who have moderate attitudes toward politics and who are not big fans of Donald Trump, but aren't sure they want to support Biden and Democrats either. It's possible the Tom Ridge endorsement could push some of those types of voters more toward Biden.”

Hardcore Trump supporters, Speel said, tend to dismiss other Republicans who do not back the president.

“They’ll call them ‘Republican in name only’, the RINO nickname, or they’re ‘establishment Republicans’ or ‘Bush Republicans,’” Speel said.

Trump supporter and Erie County Councilman Brian Shank, a Republican, said he has great respect for Ridge, noting both his political career and his two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, and said has every right to back who he wants in the presidential race.

Shank, though, doesn’t understand why a Republican like Ridge would support a candidate and a party he believes is moving further to the left.

“People’s minds, at 30-plus days and counting, are already pretty much made up,” Shank said. “His endorsement might sway one- or two-dozen people, but I can tell you the big picture is I don't think that it is as big of a deal as people are making it out to be.”

Verel Salmon, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party, said the party supported Ridge his entire career. One common remark he’s heard for Republican volunteers is that they are “disappointed” in Ridge.

Republican Phil English, who succeeded Ridge in Congress when he was elected governor, has known Ridge, 75, for 40 years. English and Ridge worked together on George H.W. Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign.

English noted it was President George W. Bush who appointed Ridge to serve as the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2001 and that the last time Ridge was heavily involved in a presidential campaign was when Ridge’s late friend, Sen. John McCain, ran in 2008. Trump has been critical of both McCain and the Bush family.

“Tom Ridge takes a very personal view to politics and he's a loyalist,” English said. “Part of what we see here is a somewhat different philosophy. Also part of what we see here is that the Bush political network on one hand, and even more so the McCain network, have been adverse to President Trump politically, particularly as he has gotten started. Tom Ridge is not the first Bush Republican to take a different view and to depart from where the Republican party currently is.”

Ridge’s endorsement of Biden likely stems from the COVID-19 pandemic given Ridge’s role as secretary of Homeland Security, and because Ridge has had a “decent” relationship with Biden over the years.

English, who has not weighed into the presidential campaign this year, said Ridge is widely respected in Erie Couonty and many voters will weigh his endorsement of Biden.

However, “I think that the political impact, not of Tom Ridge’s endorsement, but of almost anyone's endorsement these days, is much less pronounced because the parties are much more polarized,” English said.

Contact Matthew Rink at mrink@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ETNrink.