Seeing Red

As the anniversary of President Obama’s election approached, I was dispatched to the reddest county in America with a straightforward but extremely challenging task: Find a Democrat.

November 2009By Comments

KIND OF BLUE: In the 2008 presidential election, only 8 out of 163 King County voters cast ballots for Barack Obama.  
Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

The traveler heading east out of Lubbock on U.S. 82 soon leaves the fields of cotton and maize behind and enters some of the most desolate country in Texas. Beyond Crosbyton lies the land of the big ranches, the Pitchfork and the 6666. There is nothing here but prairie, cattle, horses, and an occasional ranch building. The closest thing to a billboard is a handmade sign saying, “Join the NRA.” Dickens, the next town up the road, has a cafe and a liquor store, but by the time you get to King County, ninety miles from Lubbock, you think you have come to the end of the world. According to the latest census estimate, there are just 281 people in the entire county. Many of them live in Guthrie, the speck-on-the-map county seat, in dwellings provided by the 6666 or the school district for their employees. The town has a courthouse, a post office, and a school with a spiffy new addition (thanks to oil and gas production in the county), but its cafe is abandoned, and its service station shut down long ago. A gasoline truck arrives occasionally to fill the tanks, but gas is available only by credit or debit card. The lone business in town is the supply house for the 6666, which dispenses, according to the sign outside, “Food and Drink, Clothes, 6666 Souvenirs, Ammunition.” If you need anything else, like a bank or a restaurant or a car wash to get the red dirt off your pickup after a rain, the best bet is Paducah, 28 miles north on U.S. 83. The only noteworthy landmark in the whole county is a statue of a racehorse and rider, located on the 6666, near the highway that bypasses Guthrie. The horse is Dash for Cash, one of the greatest racing quarter horses ever, who lived out his years on the ranch as a stud horse.

But King County does have a unique distinction. In the 2008 election, 92.63 percent of its vote for president of the United States went to John McCain, making it the reddest county in the nation. Only 8 out of 163 voters cast ballots for Barack Obama. And so this fall, I headed to Guthrie to see how things looked as the anniversary of that election approached. I wanted to know how the residents felt about their moment of notoriety last January, when CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360Ëš sent a reporter to King County to interview them about the outcome of the election. I hoped to find out whether they felt that the actions undertaken since then by the new president had stiffened their resolve. Had the battles raging in Washington over the stimulus package and health care touched their lives? Last, and perhaps most important, I wanted to turn up at least one of those eight Obama voters. This was not just curiosity. Before I left for King County, my editor had told me, not entirely in jest, that if I didn’t find one, I might as well just not come home.

Easy for him to say. I had talked to county judge Duane Daniel by phone to get the lay of the land and to ask if he knew anyone who had voted for Obama. “I just don’t think I’d better talk about that,” he said, in a tone indicating that if folks had that particular skeleton in their closets, he wasn’t going to be the one to tell.

This prelude ran through my mind as I made my way from Lubbock to Guthrie. The highway sign indicating that the turnoff was only a mile away took me by surprise. Turnoff to what? The land on both sides of the highway was vacant except for a few 6666 ranch buildings. Guthrie was off to the north. It took me about a minute to drive through the town, at the end of which was the school, the football field, and an arena where roping contests are held in the fall.

I decided to start my interviewing at the post office. A federal employee, it seemed to me, was a good prospect for an Obama voter. But at one o’clock in the afternoon, the door was locked. The courthouse, a one-story brick building, was next on my short list of places to visit. Melody Pettiet, the justice of the peace, was at her desk. I asked about her caseload. “Ninety-eight percent of my cases are traffic stops,” she said. State troopers from Aspermont, the nearest town to the south, occasionally drive up to work the highway. Like everyone I met in Guthrie, she was aware of King’s distinction as the reddest county. She had voted for McCain. “It’s about morality,” she said. “Our country was built on the premise of following the Ten Commandments, but everything is changing. Me and my husband are against abortion and gay rights.” And then she added, about the outcome of the vote, “It had nothing to do with race.”

This turned out to be a sensitive subject in King County. The feeling of many here was that CNN had failed to give an accurate portrayal of the community. The pastor of the church that CNN had visited told me that the network was “looking for hotheaded rednecks.” CNN had pressed people during interviews to talk about race, he said. “They felt compelled to make it a racist thing. Race had nothing to do with it. Now that he is in office, we ought to pray for him.”

Jammye Timmons is the county and district clerk, a position that puts her in charge of elections. Did she know anyone who had voted for Obama? “We don’t know how anyone votes,” she said. I think it is closer to the truth that King County is a place where everybody knows everything about their neighbors, including how they vote. Everybody but me, that is.

My next stop was the school. The principal was out, but I got to talk with the counselor, who remembered that Anne Rocha, who worked at the school, had been interviewed by CNN and had said that she voted for Obama. Thank goodness. I was going to get to go home after all. Yes, Rocha said, she had indeed voted for Obama. “My children were on CHIP [Children’s Health Insurance Program],” Rocha explained, “and I felt Obama would do more for CHIP.” Alas, my triumph was fleeting. “But I didn’t live here then,” she said. “I moved here in January.”

Back to the courthouse. Every county has a Republican party chairman and a Democratic party chairman, who are chosen in their party primaries. Surely the Democratic county chair would know who the Obama voters were. “Does King County have party chairs?” I asked Timmons. She said that the Republican chairmanship was vacant but that there was a Democratic chair. Her name was Judy Jackson, and she worked in the tax assessor’s office, just a few steps away.

What had it been like, I asked Jackson, presiding over the disastrous Democratic turnout? Jackson gave a little shrug. “I knew how it was going to come out,” she said. Was she excited about voting for Obama? There was a noticeable silence. “Not really,” she said. Jackson said she did not know who the Obama voters were; frankly, I would be very surprised if the chair herself were among them.

It was beginning to seem less and less likely that I would succeed. Guthrie is a town that has no gathering place, nowhere to meet people and engage them in conversation. When I asked Bob Burkett, an agricultural communications teacher at the school, who also serves as a county commissioner, about my chances of finding someone who had voted for Obama, he grinned. “You’re looking for a needle in a haystack.”

He was right. I never did find anyone who would admit to voting for Obama, but I did learn a lot about King County politics. After I left the school, I returned to the courthouse and asked Timmons to let me see the returns of recent elections. At the top of the ticket—the races for president, senator, and Congress—King County votes overwhelmingly Republican. In George W. Bush’s two presidential races, for example, Al Gore and John Kerry each received only a handful of votes more than Obama did in the last race. Bush defeated Gore 120 to 14 and Kerry 137 to 18. In 2008 the Democratic candidate against Republican congressman Mac Thornberry received only 7 votes out of 148. But at the bottom of the ticket, in the contests for local offices, the reddest county in America is true blue. County judge Daniel is a Democrat. Commissioner Burkett is a Democrat. In fact, most county officials are Democrats. And if the primary that residents choose to vote in is a reliable guide, King County is a Democratic stronghold.

In the 2008 party primaries, 84 voters turned out for the Democratic primary in King County. Hillary Clinton led with 36 votes, Obama received 27, and John Edwards got 15. Only 20 voters participated in the Republican primary, with Mike Huckabee outpolling McCain 10 to 8. Rudy Giuliani and somebody named Hugh Cort split the other 2 votes. Proposition 2, a statewide referendum for Republican voters on whether a person should have to show a photo ID before casting a ballot, passed by a mere 6 to 4. I doubt if another county in Texas posted such a low winning margin, just 60 percent, for voter ID, a hot-button issue for most Republicans.

What explains this dichotomy between the top of the ticket and the bottom? There is an aphorism about politics and agriculture that holds that “cotton is Democratic and wheat is Republican,” and King County is cotton country. Burkett, who voted for McCain, attributes the county’s political leanings to history. “For many years,” he said, “Democrats were Democrats. It didn’t matter who was on the ticket. You were going to put an x by it.” This was true of most of rural Texas into the seventies. Now this part of the state is just about the last place where the rural conservative Democratic tradition endures.

This tradition, which was based on nineteenth-century populism—an antipathy to big money (banks, insurance companies, wealthy landowners, and other elites)—has given way to twenty-first-century populism, which is based on anger toward big government over illegal immigration, the breakdown of moral values, and the unchecked financial speculation that brought about a worldwide economic recession, all of which big government has failed to control, or made worse.

The 2008 election was a watershed event, not just because it gave the country its first black president but also because it tipped the scales of power in the Democratic party, and in American politics, irrevocably toward cities and their suburbs. As recently as the nineties, the Democrats’ nominee for president was a bubba from Arkansas. It is hard to imagine that happening today. Look at the math: Obama carried urban slivers of Virginia and North Carolina that negated the votes of 90 percent of the mostly rural land area of both states.

This is happening all over the country. In King County, the legislative and congressional redistricting maps that will follow the 2010 census will only make matters worse. The part of Texas lying between Wichita Falls and Lubbock, then northward to the top of the Panhandle, is losing population, and it follows as surely as night follows day that it will lose representation as well. That this trend manifested itself at the same time that the conservative cycle that began with Ronald Reagan came to a natural end only leaves the rural areas feeling more isolated. It is no wonder that I couldn’t find an Obama voter in King County. All the Democrats are voting Republican.

On my last day I spent an hour or so driving around the 6666 with Joe Leathers, the general manager, hoping that I would be able to read the notes I was taking as we bounced down the washboard roads. Leathers is tall and gangly, with the unmistakable look of a man who spends most of his waking hours outdoors. “What we’ve seen is rural areas dying,” he told me. “The kids have left and haven’t come back. The nation is not informed and educated about agriculture. It doesn’t know where food and clothing come from.”

The land around us was classic South Plains, a high prairie with a gentle slope and lush grasses that grew as tall as three feet. No brush obstructed our view across pristine pastures. But if brush, the ancient enemy of ranchers, has been tamed, more-contemporary adversaries have not. “America feeds the world,” Leathers said. “Scripture tells us, ‘I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in.’ Now we spend all our time trying to knock down what the federal government is doing to us. We won’t be able to afford to feed the world anymore.” He turned his pickup off the dirt road we had come down, and we were back on hard pavement, headed for the supply house where I had parked my car. “CNN tried to make a big deal out of the Republican percentage,” he said. “We as a county voted for the person who could best be able to help us make a living.”

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