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These key counties are telling the story of America's shifting political landscape

"Meet the Press Reports" gets on-the-ground looks at five key counties that will help determine the shape of the 2022 midterm elections and beyond.
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In communities across America, voters are still trying to find their political homes after a tumultuous five years when many questioned long-standing party loyalties or became active in elections for the first time. And they have a long list of challenges in their areas that they're counting on leaders to address.

That's why NBC News is launching its County to County series, which will embed reporters in seven bellwether counties throughout the 2022 cycle for regular stories about the changing face of American politics.

From big cities to sprawling suburbs to small rural towns, County to County will check in regularly on what voters are talking about and how politicians in both parties hope to win their votes in November 2022. "Meet the Press Reports" features the series this week on Peacock with on-the-ground reports from five of the counties.

Luzerne County, Pennsylvania

For almost 30 years, Luzerne County could be counted on to deliver votes for Democratic presidential candidates. Former President Barack Obama actively courted voters in the area, a blue-collar bastion in northeastern Pennsylvania, which he carried twice.

But in 2016, Luzerne was part of a sea change in American politics, going for Donald Trump by double digits. He won it again last year, even as he lost the state to Joe Biden, who grew up in nearby Scranton.

Cameron Cox, a self-described former Blue Dog Democrat, didn't vote for Trump. But the last few years have shifted his perspective on where his politics belong. Recently, he changed his party registration to Republican.

"I go to work in cowboy boots or work boots, fire-resistant clothing, being covered in grease," Cox said. "Go to a Democratic Party event and look around the room, see if anyone else looks like you. They don't."

Delaware County, Ohio

The political and cultural tides are moving in the opposite direction in affluent Delaware County, a longtime Republican stronghold in the Columbus area, where Trump's portrayal of an America besieged by dark forces didn't resonate with the fast-growing population.

"It's just turned into reality TV, you know. It wasn't about policy," said Merv Roland, a lifelong Republican who re-registered as a Democrat. " It wasn't about, you know, ideas. It was just about conflict, about good TV."

Democrats have dramatically closed the gap in recent years: Trump carried the county by 16 points in 2016 but only 7 points last year. The county GOP chairman was among those who abandoned him, and his replacement hopes to bring wavering Republicans back in the midterms with a message focused on inflation and Afghanistan.

Anson County, North Carolina

In Anson County, a quiet rural community packed with churches, politics means giving hope to struggling communities that things can still change for the better. It's almost 50/50 Black and white, voters here are older, and the population has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010.

Howard McClean, the county school superintendent, said that the number of homeless children has risen and that 75 percent of his students live in poverty.

"Past history has shown my young people that their voice, it's hard for them to be heard in a small district," McClean said. "So that does not give them the enthusiasm to go out and vote, because they say: 'My voice is not going to be heard anyway. I'm from Anson County.'"

Democrats won the county by 13 points in 2016, but Biden took it by only 4 points last year. Community leaders say voters are in danger of losing faith with politics if they can't see concrete results, which means meeting basic needs like running water and internet service.

"We would hear someone on the state level say, 'We've got money coming,' but where is it going?" said Melanie Countee, who owns a bed and breakfast called the Dream Inn. "Is it going to where it needs to go? We need broadband, OK?"

Dane County, Wisconsin

About 1,000 miles away in Dane County, the capitol of Wisconsin and home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the electorate is anchored by young liberals who are thinking big about climate change, gun control and racial justice.

"With my generation, we have never lived in a period in which America has never been in crisis," said Chanda Chouhan, a sophomore who is interning for Democratic Senate candidate Alex Lasry. "I think 2020 taught people the importance of showing up."

While Dane has long been the face of left-leaning Wisconsin, turnout has soared to record heights in recent years, helping boost Democrats to statewide wins in 2018 and 2020. But with Trump off the ballot and Biden still struggling to enact his ambitious agenda, keeping enthusiasm up will be a top priority for Democrats.

Duval County, Florida

In swing-state Florida, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for a battle in Duval County, which spans the Jacksonville area and has long been considered Republican territory. But Biden flipped it with 51 percent of the vote last year to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win it in 44 years, even as Trump won the state with huge gains in traditionally bluer South Florida counties.

Local Democrats want to build on increased turnout among Black voters, who they say were energized by 2018 Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum's losing run for governor and then the George Floyd protests last year.

Daniel Henry, the chair of the county Democratic Party, hopes to keep the momentum up by showing voters that the new administration is making progress on police reform.

"If Congress and the president and leadership is not able to solidify those issues, I worry it may have an impact in the midterm elections," he said.

Dasha Burns reported from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania and Delaware County, Ohio. Antonia Hylton reported from Dane County, Wisconsin, and Anson County, North Carolina. Shaquille Brewster reported from Duval County, Florida. Benjy Sarlin reported from Washington.