At first, Jackie Kulback didn’t see the billboard with her own eyes. It was only because friends of the longtime Republican and current chairwoman of the Cambria County GOP began texting her.
“Tell us Jackie, who did you vote for? Cambria County wants to know,” the glowing, electric-yellow letters said on the billboard near a Johnstown Wal-Mart.
“When I first saw the billboard, I wasn’t even sure it was targeted towards me, then I started getting a lot of phone calls from friends, family and voters who were asking me what that message even meant,” Kulback said.
But eventually, the likelihood that it was aimed directly at her seemed to become inescapable as the billboard’s message continued from January into mid-February.
“Such a cryptic message leads me to believe that it was meant to be intimidating,” Kulback said. “I received a call from one of the statewide candidates from the last cycle who was furious that anyone would waste money trying to intimidate anyone, especially a party leader who consistently delivers victories.”
Kulback’s history of service to Republicans in the county is undeniable. Besides leading her county’s party, she also serves chair of the GOP’s southwest caucus. She was at the helm in September 2020 when the county’s voter registration majority officially flipped from Democrat to Republican, a harvest that had been long in the making.
“We started with a strategic plan back in 2013 when I was the County Party Treasurer,” she told Broad + Liberty. “We followed that plan for several years. As our Republican registration grew, we had a need for a new plan. We have been following our strategic plan and report to our committee every meeting as to our metrics. Any decisions we make are based upon our mission and our vision which hang up on the wall. I’m proud of our committee and their dedication.”
Yet Kulback was also a county leader who wasn’t shy about voicing concerns about the Republican ticket as it was shaping up in advance of the November 2022 elections.
Just days before the Pennsylvania primary, Kulback was quoted in a Politico report conveying an impending sense of doom, and voicing her disappointment that GOP State Chairman Lawrence Tabas had run a primary in which the state party declined to make endorsements.
“At this point, Lawrence needs to own it. He’s the one in charge, so it’s up to him to figure this out,” Kulback told Politico. “Honestly, as a state party we need to reevaluate our entire organization. We need to look at reorganization.”
The Politico report was specifically focused on GOP worries that State Senator Doug Mastriano (Adams and Franklin counties) might handily win the primary, but would fail to broaden his appeal to the general electorate enough to win the governor’s seat in a year in which circumstances like President Biden’s low approval rating and kitchen-table issues like high inflation created a favorable environment for Republicans.
Those worries were eventually borne out, as Mastriano lost 56-40. Mastriano and his supporters have argued that the loss wasn’t representative of Mastriano’s appeal, but was due to being largely abandonded by political spending from outside groups like the Republican Governors’ Association.
Whatever her hesitations about any particular candidate might have been, Kulback says as chair, she never hesitated to put the full power of the county party behind the full slate of candidates in 2022. As proof of that, she supplied Broad + Liberty with photos she took of over a hundred signs she and the party painstakingly assembled by hand to place at each polling location in the county.
Pinning down the owners of the billboard in an effort to find who placed the ad — if the owners will release that name — has proven to be difficult. Two billboard companies who had the billboard listed as parts of their inventory told Broad + Liberty they no longer owned or operated the sign, even though it was currently listed on their websites.
StarMedia also lists the billboard as part of its inventory. A salesperson reached by phone declined to say if the company owned or managed the billboard, and refused to provide a phone number for the company’s headquarters in Mount Pleasant. Voicemails left to a phone number listed for the headquarters were not returned.
While Kulback does want to identify the billboard owner and the ad purchaser, she’s also trying to keep a wider view. She’s keeping an open mind about alternative possibilies about what happened with the billboard, but simultaneously feels led by her political instinct developed over years of experience.
“If this is related to one of the statewide campaigns from the last cycle, shame on them,” Kulback said. Attacking volunteers over your loss is an embarrassment,” she said.
As much as anyone, Kulback knows party unity is a core principle that helps candidates break the tape on election day. But she also insists vigorous debate about the party’s candidates and methods can’t be brushed aside or subordinated completely.
“The larger concern I have is that these intimidation tactics make it harder and harder to convince good people to step up and volunteer,” Kulback said. “There’s nothing glamorous about what happens at the local level. It’s just a lot of hard work, door knocking, phone banking, creating events to bring people together to meet candidates, creating a Mail-in-Ballot Chase Program, developing a local EDO (election day operation), manning polls on election day and monitoring the election process.
“To have volunteers like me getting personally attacked creates a toxic environment which prevents the free-flowing ideas that makes our democracy work. We all hear about censorship occurring at a national level and in social media, but this takes intimidation to a new low.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports