In Rural Ohio, It's No Country For Democrats

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

GREENVILLE, Ohio, March 4 -- Route 49 will carry you straight into Greenville, where sharpshooter Annie Oakley lived and died, and where Democrats have been pummeled at the polls since Ronald Reagan's presidency. The flat state highway takes you past acres and acres of brown farmland first, with wooden barns in the distance and hardly ever a political sign planted in a yard. Greenville is the seat of Darke County, which typically ranks first in the state in corn and soybean production.

For county Democratic Party Chairman James Surber, it is a place to contemplate the most puzzling human behavior. "I have always said that the three most baffling questions you could ponder forever are: What's the meaning and purpose of life? Why is Bruce Willis a star? And why do farmers vote Republican?"

Surber, the elected county engineer who has 110 acres of farmland himself, struggles to change minds. "It's very challenging in an area like this," he says. "Thirty years ago, when I came to this county, it wasn't that way at all. It was nip and tuck. But the 1980s have effected some changes that are almost impossible to deal with. Two issues that have worked against us are abortion and gun owners' rights."

What has happened to the Democratic Party in rural America could be heard through the voices of voters in the open primary here Tuesday, as the rain poured steadily and the skies stayed gray.

"I have a lot of fears," said Patricia Day, a substitute aide for the local school system. Fears? "The Democrats. That's what I'm afraid of. I'm not against Democrats in general. It's just Hillary and Obama. I think there are too many secrets they are hiding, and they're not honest about their intentions in office." She voted for Mike Huckabee, as did her husband, Wayne, an electrician. But neither left the polls satisfied. "I'm disappointed in this election," Patricia said. "I just feel like we're going to get railroaded. I don't like the leading candidates, and I've never been in this position."

Same for Wayne. But even though John McCain is not conservative enough for him, and Huckabee, he acknowledges, stands no chance of winning, voting for a Democrat would have been revolting. "It's just the way I was raised," Wayne said. "I'm a strong Christian." He specifically singled out Barack Obama. "I refuse to vote for a president who refuses to uphold the Pledge of Allegiance," said Wayne, citing false information in wide Internet circulation, though he quickly admitted: "Granted, that might be hearsay."

There was an ominous, low-moment tone to many of the interviews at polling locations here. Many voters expressed concerns about long-term health care, retirement benefits, rising pharmaceutical costs and joblessness, which is slightly higher in Darke County than the state and national averages. In Ohio on Tuesday, nearly six in 10 voters called the economy their No. 1 issue, according to exit polls.

Just last week, a third-generation car dealership in Greenville closed its doors, and Ann Garland's 18-year-old grandson lost his job. "It's beginning to show in sections," she said, referring to the economic downturn. Crop prices are up, but farmers complain about the cost of feed and fertilizer.

"As far as I'm concerned, the economy is terrible right now," said Jerry DePoy, a retired businessman who had owned a cleaning service. "The newspaper's worth more than the dollar right now." DePoy voted for McCain.

Gerald Onkst felt much the same way as DePoy; he was just more ornery. He refused to say whom he voted for, not that he felt it mattered. "I don't think anybody is going to help the poor man," said Onkst, a retired factory worker. "The president can't do nothing unless the Congress lets him, and they won't. And this superdelegate stuff is [expletive]."

Terry Barton, by birth and upbringing, should be a Democratic voter. His entire family are Democrats -- parents and siblings. But not him. He voted Tuesday for Huckabee. Why the Republicans over Democrats?

"I guess I trust them more," Barton said. "I guess I think they're not as sloppy as the Democrats."

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