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.
Seeing Red
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

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