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."

* * *

So this is what the Democratic Party is up against. In 2004, George W. Bush carried Darke County with 70 percent of the vote. His margins in rural Ohio swung the state for him and thus swung the election. Nationally, Bush beat John Kerry in rural counties by 19 points; he defeated Al Gore in rural America by 22 points in 2000, according to the Center for Rural Strategies.

Recent polling done by the center, however, has shown some erosion in the GOP's grip on rural voters, driven by the Iraq war, the economy and negative views overall of the Bush administration's stewardship of the nation. Democrats see an opportunity. "It's all social and cultural," says Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a John Edwards strategist who is now unaligned. "It has nothing to do with policy. It's about wedge politics. And the way you pull wedgies out is simple -- you say it's a lie. I'm talking about on a one-on-one basis, when you are out in the field." He used as his test example Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whom some rural voters may see as representing the liberal, tone-deaf Democratic establishment but who, Saunders noted, always has an A-plus rating with the National Rifle Association.

The Ohio Democratic Party is trying to build teams of neighborhood leaders to help the party break through in some rural areas in the fall election. "We don't have to win these counties, but we have to lose them better," says John Hagner, the state party's field and targeting director. The fall strategy: Win southeastern Ohio, compete in the small towns of the north and cut the losses in the exurban and rural counties, such as Darke.

The good news, as Hagner sees it: 563,000 Ohioans who voted for Bush voted for Democrat Ted Strickland for governor in 2006; and 442,000 Bush voters also helped elect Democrat Sherrod Brown to the U.S. Senate.

"Darke County and the rest of southwestern Ohio is always going to be the toughest part of the state for us," says Hagner, though Strickland narrowly lost the county by three percentage points. "It's turning around slowly."

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tried to work Darke County. Field directors for both campaigns contacted Surber about arranging organizational meetings in the county and lining up volunteers to canvass. According to the Center for Rural Strategies, Clinton started off in a stronger position with rural voters, taking 55 percent of the rural vote on Super Tuesday, compared with Obama's 37 percent. But that changed as the race moved forward and Obama gained momentum.

"I think we've got a very big opportunity," says Surber. "I think the next president has to be a charismatic leader -- someone who can instill hope, confidence and trust in the American people. He's going to have to make people feel good even though they are suffering. He's going to have to make people see light at the end of the tunnel. And because I'm using the masculine pronoun, you probably know who I'm thinking of."

By Tuesday night, though, it was Clinton who had chalked up a big win in Ohio, and exit polls indicated she grabbed a full 70 percent of the state's rural voters.

* * *

Greenville is a city of 13,000, 35 miles northwest of Dayton. Its main downtown strip is three blocks long, the highlight of which is its KitchenAid store, to which visitors drive hundreds of miles to attend cooking demonstrations and classes and to buy kitchen necessities, including those famous stand mixers manufactured by Whirlpool in Greenville. The store -- called the KitchenAid Experience -- has a museum downstairs where visitors can study the evolution of the mixer. You can even see Julia Child's mixer. "Kind of neat," says Greenville Mayor Mike Bowers. "Hometown stuff."

Bowers is a one-man chamber of commerce, a droll enthusiast for his city. He drives a visitor past the Greenville city park and the Garst Museum, which features an Annie Oakley exhibit; the new ethanol plant; and Boyd Cleaners, a city institution. No piece of Greenville lore is too small. "Greenville is sometimes called the horseshoe-pitching capital of the world," he says, noting fabled city tournaments such as the Ringer Classic.

Bowers, a Republican who grew up Democratic, was elected last November with 74 percent of the vote. "We did well."

He sees his mayoralty as a public-service calling, giving back to the town in which he grew up.

"Politics on a local level, I don't think it's that big a concern to folks," Bowers says. "I think when it gets at the state and federal level, that's when the differences get played out more." And on those differences -- for Bowers, it's abortion -- Republicans have laid political claim to Darke County. So, when it's local, party doesn't really matter, Bowers says. But when it comes to voting for a Democratic president? "My thoughts are that a McCain-Huckabee ticket sounds about the most attractive right now."

At the First Congregational Christian Church, four polling machines were set up in the activity center. The dimly lit gym had a cheery team of polling supervisors who brought homemade potato soup, meatballs and brownies with them. On one wall were giant religious banners: "Jesus Is Lord" and "God Wants You for His Army" and others.

"It was hard, really hard," Eva Maloney said after she voted. She had been married 22 years to a military man and is now divorced. It was almost as though she was viewing politics through a different lens this season. She had voted Republican before, but not this time. "I like Hillary's time and service; she knows a lot of the programs inside out. But I like Barack's social change. I'm going to keep my vote to myself. I usually do. But I did vote Democratic this year."

Greenville police Lt. Bob Berger emerged from voting and said, "It's an interesting year. Two strong Democratic candidates." He decided to go with one of them, though he wouldn't say whom, even though he most often votes Republican. "First off, the McCain campaign is pretty well wrapped up, and I wanted to have my imprint on the Democratic choice. And I'll reevaluate for November." Berger is about to retire from the force after 25 years. "I want to know, as my income drops down, who will look out for my best interests. So that's going to be my guide."

A few stoplights away was the American Legion, Naomi Winans's polling location. Not even the heavy rain could keep the 88-year-old retired factory worker out of this election. The widow of a farmer, with the 80-acre farm sold, she now spends most of her time playing the piano, playing cards, cooking and visiting friends at rest homes. "You have to stay active, keep your mind sharp, so you can know who to vote for."

Winans smiled. She tied her rain scarf. Winans has plenty of opinions on politics, which she shared.

"I'm a Christian lady and I kind of like that Huckabee, Huckletree, however you pronounce it. And I think McCain is too old. And I like that fella who is running against Hillary, and he was my choice until I heard what he said the other day." She wouldn't say what he said. "And I didn't want a woman. That's a man's job being president. I don't think God put a woman here to run the country. Well, her husband was in there already. They don't need that much more money, do they?"

Winans then went out into the rain and cold. She was a Republican voter for Huckabee, someone with whom the Democrats never had a chance.

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