By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008
It's lunchtime at Winchester's Twilight Zone Cafe, in what Republicans call the "real Virginia." A carpenter, an unemployed Republican and two mechanics wash down Philly cheese steaks with cold Budweiser and sweet tea and crack wise about the dour economic news and Sen. Barack Obama talking change on CNN. Joe Bageant takes a last bite of his fried egg sandwich and decides it's time to talk politics with the "real Americans that pay the bills and do all the damn work."
Bageant, 62, grew up in Winchester. He knows many of the working-class folks here and has written about what he calls their "Republic of Redneckia" culture in his book "Deer Hunting with Jesus." These are people who are "Republicans by default," he says. And Winchester, an old southern town founded in 1744 that has been home to George Washington, Stonewall Jackson, Harry Byrd and Patsy Cline, lies in the reddest of red hearts in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
But with just days left before the election, what Bageant is finding surprises him. Sure, there are still plenty of McCain/Palin signs around town. But down at the smoke shop, over at the Royal Lunch tavern, his working-class friends are all over the map.
"I've had to eat my words," Bageant said. "Undecideds in Virginia are usually just conservatives playing coy. But this time, by golly, it's different. I'm running into real undecided people. The working-class culture is confused. They're traumatized. There's an anxiety underneath, and their faith in things being the way they have been is greatly shaken. Those that are changing are significant, even if the numbers are small. The elections are so close these days that small things can be dramatic."
That's a worry for Sen. John McCain and a source of hope for Obama.
To win the 13 electoral votes of Virginia, a state that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, Obama will need to win big in more than urban Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. He will also need rural, working-class voters -- if not voting for him, at least not turning out in big numbers for McCain.
The co-chairman of McCain's Virginia campaign, State Del. Christopher B. Saxman (R-Staunton), said that he is still confident McCain will do well in rural Virginia but that Republicans have never had to work this hard. "There are a lot of new voters now," he said. "We don't know how they're going to vote."
That is why Obama appeared last Monday just down Interstate 81 in Harrisonburg, the first Democratic presidential contender to show up there since Stephen Douglas did so in 1860. That is why he has 50 campaign offices with 250 paid staffers in the state. And that is why journalists from around the globe have been showing up on Bageant's front porch and asking for a guide to the voters of the "real" Virginia, because this year, what they think might change the course of history.
These are the people Bageant calls American serfs, looked down upon, caricatured and ignored by mainstream culture. "It's amazing the focus they're getting now," Bageant said as a reporter from Sweden pulled up. "Look who's the swing state now."
At the Twilight Cafe, Bageant swapped stories with the crowd about elderly Nutsy Baton, who used to parade through the streets with her baton day and night, and Lonzy Baker, the hermit who lived at the dump and recited Shakespeare. When it came to politics, the group was first all bluster.
"I'm gonna vote for whoever ain't runnin,' " joked Richard Dooley, one of the two mechanics. "Bush already proved it doesn't matter what we think."
"I vote for T. Boone Pickens," said James Bryan, the carpenter. "Obama could get elected, but there's too many racist people. . . . And I wish they'd stop calling him black. He's more Arab. His father was Ugandan or something."
"Yeah, if you look at his head, you can tell where he wraps the towel around his head," Dooley cracked.
"You got issues, man," said cafe owner Gary Leon, shaking his head and setting them straight on Obama's Christian faith, Kenyan father and Hawaiian upbringing.
They talk about immigration; they all know Hispanics who sleep in their vans to make it to work on time everyday. And in their unease about the economy, they don't talk about 401(k)s or stock prices. "I'd like it so my kids won't have to drive out of state to work," Dooley said. They talk about the Waffle House on Pleasant Valley Road closing and how the Dollar Store is about the only place making money. Bryan said he has never had a credit card -- "if I can't pay for it, I don't need it."
Bageant asked how they will vote Tuesday.
Leon, a black Republican who twice voted for President Bush, said he was so fed up that he plans to vote Democratic.
And Bryan, 53, an independent who loved Ronald Reagan, adjusted his baseball cap and almost imperceptibly pointed at the TV, showing Obama.
Kimberly Thurber, 32, the unemployed Republican, elbowed him.
"Did you just quietly point so I wouldn't hear?" she demanded.
"He's got his head more on his shoulders," Bryan said. "All McCain does is whine."
"But Sarah Palin is great, even though she's not so keen on foreign policy," Thurber said.
"She's not keen on anything," he retorted. "John McCain could keel over and have a heart attack, and we'd be left with a dingbat."
Finally, Thurber admitted that she was on the fence. A friend of hers has Parkinson's disease and is leaving the country for treatment because of the Bush administration's ban on federally funding human stem cell research. "I'm gonna flip a coin when the time comes," Thurber said.
Outside, with nonvoting Dooley back in the garage, the other mechanic, Steven Kunu, pulled Bageant aside and confessed that he had never voted but that he plans to vote for Obama. He has been wanting to buy a house and said he can't get a mortgage because of the financial crisis.
Like the rest of Virginia, Winchester has been slowly changing as the high-tech boom extends westward along Interstate 66. Shopping centers and what Bageant calls "McMonster" houses have gone up, threatening to turn Winchester, a town still divided by CSX railroad tracks, into yet another exurb of Washington. That demographic change, along with working-class discontent and pragmatic Democratic appeals, have been shifting the political landscape. In 2004, Bush trounced John Kerry by 14 percentage points in Winchester. But in 2005, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine narrowly beat Republican Jerry W. Kilgore for governor.
"I don't think there's any question that we don't have as much headwind as Sen. McCain in that region," said Kevin Griffis, regional communications director for the Obama campaign. "But there's never been a presidential campaign that has invested in the Shenandoah Valley in the way that the Obama campaign has. Even if we don't win that region, there's no question that we'll wring every vote out of the Shenandoah Valley that exists."
One vote they won't be wringing, however, is that of Jim Edmonds, owner of the Stonewall Cafe. Edmonds is a Democrat who supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton but is voting for McCain because "Obama just seems like he thinks he's better than everybody else."
Social issues were big over at the Picadilly Grill, where Larry Ludwig, 48, a receiving clerk at a Kohl's distribution center and a Mike Huckabee supporter, said he doesn't worry about the economic crisis because "I just feel that God will take care of me." He's voting for McCain because he "makes sense" and because Palin is an "excellent choice."
And over at the Royal Lunch, the loud talk is all about how the country isn't ready for a black man in the White House, but no one feels much like doing anything about it. None of the Republican-leaning diners planned to vote. "I've got more things on my mind than politics right now," said Bob Naio, a housepainter.
After a few beers with the regulars, Bageant prepared to leave. A woman grabbed him by the arm. "Don't quote me," she said in a low voice. "Don't use my name. But I think Obama will win Virginia. I think he'll win everything. People here are very negative. So his middle name is Hussein. Maybe it gives him a different perspective."
Bageant, chronicler of working-class culture, scratched his head, nonplussed once again, and walked out the door, heading toward the train tracks that once so neatly divided the town.