© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

His District Is Full Of Ukrainian Americans. So Why Did He Vote Against More Aid To Ukraine?

Rep. Dan Meuser voted for Ukraine funding before he voted against it.

Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and President Joe Biden hold a news conference at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in December 2023. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

SCHUYLKILL COUNTY, Pa. — Since the invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago, every liturgy at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church has ended the same way: parishioners kneel, say the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary, and sing “God Bless America.”

“You get choked up just singing that, because we are so blessed here, blessed enough to be so strong that we could help other countries to the best way that we can, because it seems like all the other countries look for America to help them,” churchgoer Rhonda Luettgen said while leaving the parish on a recent Sunday morning.

Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, is home to the highest concentration of people of Ukrainian descent anywhere in the United States. It also happens to be represented by a member of Congress who has become skeptical of sending more American money to Ukraine: Republican Rep. Dan Meuser.

Meuser, who is himself of Ukrainian descent, is among a growing number of Republicans in the House who have gone lukewarm on sending aid to support Ukraine.

Although he supported the majority of aid pushes that have gone through Congress since the invasion, Meuser was one of 117 House Republicans to vote against the most recent supplemental aid package in September. And he has not committed to supporting further aid now being pushed by the Biden administration.

His stance is emblematic of a divide in the Republican Party over what role the U.S. should play in the world. And in a rural, conservative county in northeastern Pennsylvania, it presents two major questions: Why would a representative elected by so many Ukrainian Americans stand in the way of more aid to the nation? And will he pay a political price for it?

Part of Meuser’s reasoning is that the rest of the world should be doing more. As of November, the European Union and its member states have made $91 billion in assistance available, compared to the $113 billion so far approved by Congress.

“Here they are pussyfooting around about the funding that they’re going to provide and expecting us, the United States of America with $33 trillion in debt, to fund it all,” Meuser told NOTUS in an interview in his office.

Meuser is also buoyed by a conflicted voter base at home. The Ukrainian Americans in Meuser’s district have deep ties to Ukraine. But like other voters in rural, white areas of the country, they have been trending toward the Republican Party since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, fixated on crime, the southern border and the loss of coal jobs. Party loyalty and resentment toward Democrats can trump even the most tightly held political goals. And some say they simply aren’t aware of Meuser’s votes on Ukraine aid, even if they closely follow the news of the war.

The Biden administration is waging an aggressive campaign for a new $60 billion appropriation after warning congressional leaders that resources for Ukraine would run out by the end of 2023. The White House is in talks with a bipartisan group of senators trying to come to a deal that would include changes to U.S. border and immigration policy alongside new foreign aid, including for Ukraine. The framework of any potential deal is still being worked out, and Meuser’s office is not making any commitments for now. “I want to protect the Ukrainian border, and the American people want us to protect our southern border,” he told NOTUS over email.

Ukrainian flag
Tom Hinson, a conservative Ukrainian-American resident of Frackville, said he first hung the Ukrainian flag in front of his home during the invasion and would keep it there until Ukraine won the war. Katherine Swartz/NOTUS

Emphasizing the at-home economic benefit of Ukraine aid, the White House circulated a fact sheet at the end of 2023 breaking down the aid at a state-by-state level. It stated that Pennsylvania had received $2.3 billion in spending and investments, more than any other state. The White House singled out the state’s manufacturing of tactical vehicles, as well as 155 mm artillery shells made at the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant, less than an hour’s drive north of Schuylkill County.

Meuser said in his office that framing the supplemental funding through the local benefit is “a socialist’s viewpoint on the economy.”

“Do you think it’s a great idea for us, for the government, to spend dollars on military hardware, and that somehow is good for the economy? I mean, why don’t we spend a trillion dollars on it?” he asked. “C’mon, the good idea is a competitive economy to create growth and for us to build up the adequate military so we are the strongest in the world.”

Meuser, like more and more Republicans, falls somewhere in the middle on funding for Ukraine. He’s not rallying for more aid, like defense hawks including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and he’s not loudly against it, like fellow Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, former chair of the House Freedom Caucus. Meuser received a C- rating from Republicans For Ukraine, a project under the group Defending Democracy Together that tracks Republican House members’ voting records on assistance since the invasion.

Meuser’s stance is in line with a growing number in his party. But where Meuser stands alone is his conservative, Ukrainian district, where the war is top of mind.

“I think he’s wrong. He’s very wrong,” Luettgen, the Ukrainian American churchgoer in his district, said of Meuser’s record. “It absolutely affects how I would vote in the future, because when it’s too late, it’s too late.”

For the Ukrainian community in Schuylkill County, the war is personal. Many regularly write to cousins and other relatives still in the country. Some residents in their 90s immigrated to Pennsylvania after fleeing Ukraine during World War II.

“There is such a pride in heritage, and the churches make sure we pay attention to Ukraine,” said state Rep. Tim Twardzik, a Republican. He lives just down the street from St. Michael’s church and represents part of Schuylkill County in Harrisburg.

For 52 years, his seat was held by “the Democratic machine” of the county, he said. “The Democrats here were Kennedy Democrats. People had a picture of JFK in their home next to the pope.”

Trump’s popularity transformed the voter base. There were 4,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the county in 2012. Today, Republicans there outnumber Democrats by 22,000.

“Trump struck a chord here. People liked what he could do,” Twardzik said. The former president capitalized on the area’s anxieties around the coal industry — a mere shadow of what it was just decades ago — and an influx of Latino immigration to the area in the last decade.

At a time when Republicans are becoming increasingly hostile to ongoing support for Ukraine, the party’s hold on these voters could be in jeopardy.

“At every Ukrainian event now, the rallying cry is ‘If Meuser can’t vote with us, he needs to go,’” Paula Holoviak, a resident just outside his district, told NOTUS while walking the grounds of the Ukrainian Homestead, a local gathering place that celebrates Ukrainian heritage and culture.

Holoviak’s grandfather immigrated to work in the coal mines and settled in the next town over from where she lives now, just beyond Schuylkill County. She grew up attending her local Ukrainian Catholic church, doing traditional dances and learning the language. She’s now actively involved with the Homestead. At the Homestead’s annual Thanksgiving celebration, over a meal featuring borscht and halupki, she watched the children’s dance group perform the same steps she did as a child. “I could do these dances in my sleep — I mean, I grew up doing the same exact ones,” Holoviak said. “We pass these dances down exactly from one generation to the next because Ukrainians couldn’t do these dances under the Soviets. It makes it that much more important to keep the traditions alive.”

Unlike the majority of the area’s voters, Holoviak said she is a lifelong “FDR Democrat.” But to the Ukrainian community of Schuylkill County, funding for Ukraine isn’t seen as a partisan issue, Holoviak said. She said she’s called or emailed Meuser’s office every week since the war began, although she’s never spoken to Meuser himself.

“If Ukrainians are ticked off — and they are ticked off — it could be a substantial problem for him.”

Parishoners kneel in prayer
Parishoners kneel in prayer during Sunday liturgy at St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Frackville. Katherine Swartz/NOTUS

Meuser’s story is familiar in the county. His grandfather immigrated from Lviv to work in the coal mines. He has strong feelings about Putin — “I hate the man, like, I’m not sure if I hate anybody on Earth as much as I hate him,” he said in an interview. But unlike his most vocal Ukrainian constituents, he’s reluctant to put more U.S. dollars behind that effort.

“I go home and trust me, with all the Ukrainians in Schuylkill County, I guarantee you, if you did a poll, 65% easy would say no more funding to Ukraine until we have a better understanding as to where dollars are going,” he said. “So I get questioned, and it’s my job to assure that their taxpayer dollars are being used right.”

A member of Meuser’s staff clarified that his office had not done polling on the issue, but “that has been the congressman’s experience discussing the topic regularly with constituents in Schuylkill County.”

Meuser’s position is in lockstep with House Republican leadership. Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s December visit that the Biden administration had not given Republicans “a clear articulation of the strategy to allow Ukraine to win.” Johnson said the first condition for any security supplemental would be an agreement on the southern border. Asked by NOTUS if Zelenskyy’s visit did anything to change his approach on Ukraine, Johnson said, “Not at all.”

John Conway, director of strategy at Republicans For Ukraine, said that in focus groups of Republican voters and in Republican lawmakers’ votes, support for Ukraine started to wane in 2023. One contributing factor is how Trump’s “America First” foreign policy has divided the party. It’s something Conway has seen reflected on the presidential primary debate stage between Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, and one he’s seen in the halls of Congress.

“There’s this tug of war between those traditional Republican values and the values of the Trumpified Republican Party,” Conway said.

Meuser is closely allied with Trump; he briefly entered the race for speaker of the House in October but dropped out before the conference voted, saying he made a commitment to Trump to help lead his campaign in Pennsylvania. The former president hasn’t committed to funding Ukraine, and at recent campaign rallies has railed against the Biden administration for, as he says, prioritizing Ukraine and putting “America last.”

Meuser called it “ridiculous” to say he hasn’t supported Ukraine funding, noting he’s voted in favor of previous supplemental aid totaling over $100 billion.

He voted in favor of a National Defense Authorization Act amendment in July introduced by Rep. Matt Gaetz that would have prohibited federal funds from being made available to provide security assistance for Ukraine. He said it was a mistake — that he’d voted yes when he intended to vote no — and subsequently corrected himself in the congressional record after the vote.

Most recently, he voted against a $300 million supplemental appropriation in September alongside a majority of House Republicans. Meuser said he’s “undecided” on funding for Ukraine moving forward.

Democrat Amanda Waldman is looking to capitalize on what she sees as a growing disconnect between Meuser and the district, particularly among Ukranian conservatives. She challenged Meuser in 2022 and entered the race for 2024 late last year. Neither Waldman nor Meuser currently has a primary challenger.

Their first matchup wasn’t close; Meuser won with nearly 70% of the vote in the last election. With a 60-30 party registration split in favor of Republicans in the district, Waldman is banking on picking up Republicans dissatisfied enough with Meuser to vote across party lines. “I only need to get 50 plus one,” she said. “And since I’m showing up and doing more of the work than the congressman is, and he’s the elected, you might want to pay attention. Maybe the best I can do is teach him how to do his job. I’ll settle for that.”

In a statement to NOTUS, Meuser’s communications director Matthew Hanrahan said the congressman always advocates for legislation “in the best interests” of the region’s residents, and pointed constituents to Meuser’s social media and weekly newsletters to learn more about his work. While Ukraine was regularly mentioned in Meuser’s weekly newsletters in 2022, the war was referenced just three times in 2023.

Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa.
Dan Meuser speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill. Mariam Zuhaib/AP Photo

In order to mobilize voters, Waldman will have to ensure they actually know about Meuser’s votes. And many do not. In NOTUS’s conversations with dozens of conservative Ukrainians across Schuylkill County in November, even the most politically informed were unaware of his record.

Frank Peron’s connections to Ukraine, Schuylkill County and the mining community here run back generations. A Democrat for most of his life, Peron changed his party registration in 2009 because he felt the party had ignored Democrats in rural, conservative areas for far too long.

He’s now a committeeman for Pottsville in the Schuylkill County Republican Party and plans to vote for Meuser this year. He’s met Meuser several times but was not aware of his votes against funding for Ukraine.

“I actually have Dan’s number on my phone,” Peron said. “I should call him up and ask him, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ But I believe that there has to be something other than just voting against it. There has to be some conflict in there.”

Despite the personal connection many in the county have to Ukraine, few have felt the war’s threat firsthand. But for Matthew Kenenitz, a registered Republican who supported Trump, Ukraine is home.

He was born and raised in Schuylkill County, but recently spent nearly three years living in Lviv, teaching at Ukrainian Catholic University. He came back to Pennsylvania nine days before the invasion. The war began on his birthday, Feb. 24.

“When the war started, I was comatose for like a week, just sitting there watching the TV and crying,” he said.

On a brisk November afternoon in Schuylkill County, Kenenitz walked through the grounds of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic church in the borough of Centralia. Once home to thousands during the mining boom of the turn of the 20th century, the population is now five.

The domed church sits atop a hill overlooking the town, with an adjoining family cemetery where Kenenitz pointed out relatives going back generations.

“Being here in this setting at the cemetery, there’s a feeling of connection,” he said while walking through the gravesites. “But being here in general, in America, I feel a strong sense of dissociation.”

Kenenitz said he thinks U.S. military aid is the only thing keeping Russia from advancing past Ukraine to other Eastern European nations. He said the opposition in his party to aid comes from “ignorance and a lack of empathy,” and that people in America in general “don’t fully understand what a threat Russia is to true democracy.”

He said he’s not sure how he’ll vote this year because he’s not sure if he’ll remain in the U.S. or move permanently back to Ukraine. He spent two weeks back in Lviv in August of 2022, where for the most part “life was normal,” he said. But the air raid sirens were a daily reminder of how life had changed.

“How do you say that Ukraine is a waste of our time, is a waste of our energy, when you have millions of people who have been relocated, who have had to leave their homes?” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the people that take this negative stance towards Ukraine, the blood of all these innocent people is on their hands.”

Still, Monica Slovik, a lifelong member of the Homestead, is doubtful that the Republican divide on funding will change many votes.

“My grandparents, had they been alive, they would have been devastated by what’s been happening,” Slovik said. “I grew up hearing their horror stories of their families that were separated by war. So to see it actually happen in my lifetime, it’s upsetting and it’s disturbing.”

Despite the generational ties to Ukraine that define life for so many in the county, ultimately Slovik believes the Republican Party will be a stronger pull than heritage at the ballot box this year.

“Republicans in Schuylkill County voting for a Democrat? No, I don’t think that is gonna happen,” Slovik said.

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.