Bush Losing Ground in Rural America

Times Staff Writer

Like much of rural America, this isolated community south of the Columbia River Gorge is a place where people -- like their parents before them -- vote Republican when they pick their presidents. They went with George W. Bush four years ago. And most are likely to support him again this year.

But cracks have surfaced in President Bush’s once-solid rural constituency. From places like Sherman County to Montcalm County, Mich., and Mahoning County, Ohio, some Republicans are so concerned about crop prices and high unemployment that they’re considering voting Democratic for the first time.

They’re hardworking people like Sherman County farmer Tom Martin. As he plows the stubble of last autumn’s wheat harvest on his 12,000-acre spread, the 60-year-old hears mostly grim economic news on his radio.

“I’m right there on the fence,” Martin said. “Bush has lost my vote, but I’m just not excited about [John F.] Kerry either. From where I sit, neither party has much regard for the little man. And that includes farmers.”

For Bush, winning the rural vote looms more important than ever -- especially in such swing states as Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio.


In 2000, rural voters overwhelmingly backed him over Democrat Al Gore, giving Bush the boost he needed to win in some states.

Although analysts predict the president this year will again capture the majority of votes in outlying communities, they say he must win by a decisive margin to remain in the White House.

A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed that among rural voters, Bush leads Democrat John F. Kerry, 47% to 41%. But the president’s support has slipped -- down from 55% in November -- for reasons ranging from the troubled economy to growing dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq.

Perhaps Bush’s greatest strength with rural voters is an emotional bond based on cultural values. They view him as someone who thinks like they do -- a president who speaks their mind on issues like property rights, abortion and gay marriage.

In a seeming attempt to capitalize on that relationship, Republicans last week opened a new front against Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, highlighting Bush’s more conservative views on cultural issues.

“Social issues are something that Republicans have used as wedge issues, especially among rural, Midwestern and Southern voters,” said Rick Farmer, a political scientist at Akron University in Ohio.

“They’ll look for inconsistencies on Kerry’s stance on some of these controversial issues. And in close battleground states, especially those with large rural populations, it could make a difference.”

‘Used to Making Do’

Marked by its rolling wheat fields and steep, narrow canyons, Sherman County can feel a lot farther from Portland than a mere 100 miles.

Locals drive an hour to fill a prescription, shop at a supermarket or order pizza. There are no practicing attorneys, no funeral parlors, one video store and only one part-time doctor. The county’s only blinking-yellow traffic light at Biggs Junction was removed this year after officials decided it wasn’t needed.

Such isolation sows self-sufficiency -- a legacy of the Oregon Trail pioneers who settled here 150 years ago. Farmers don’t need a tow truck; they can fix their own broken tractors. And they own guns to scare off intruders. No police needed, thank you.

When choosing politicians, people go by a gut instinct framed by their interest in farm prices and a natural bent toward conservatism.

Along the county’s dusty back roads, past fallow wheat fields and rooster-red farmhouses, pro-Bush bumper stickers adorn tractors and silos.

“We’re country people, and that’s what George W. Bush represents: He’s country,” said Ray Smith, 57, whose wheat farm spans 3,000 acres. “I’m not going to go crying to the president over dollars and cents. He believes in the same things I do. That’s good enough for me.”

Farmer Chris Moore says the Bush administration has meant more freedom for folks to run their own affairs without nosy government intervention. The other party, he says, keeps pushing environmental programs that pay more heed to some endangered insect than the economic plight of the American farmer.

“The Democrats don’t trust us as stewards of the land. They’re in our face with regulations to make the ground we farm one big national park,” Moore said.

“They took down big timber first, and farming is next. President Bush may be the only defense we have left.”

Prolonged hard times, however, make others uneasy.

“Bush is scaring the heck out of me,” said farmer Gary Irzyk, who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 because he thought Bush was too influenced by the religious right. On the economy and foreign affairs, Irzyk says, “He’s way in over his head.”

When times were good, Sherman County was among the Northwest’s richest. Old-timers recall a rural kingdom that flourished beneath the shadow of snow-capped Mt. Hood, a place where private Cessnas seemed as numerous as John Deere tractors.

But a five-year drought and the lowest wheat prices in a generation have caused the community’s collective fortunes to plummet. The county now ranks as the fourth-poorest in the nation, with an unemployment rate of 12% -- Oregon’s highest.

In the last six years, Sherman County has lost nearly a third of its school-age children as families have moved away to look for jobs. Now most wives work part time, and many families collect food stamps.

Last year, Smith offered 100 free acres to anyone willing to bring a good-sized company -- and hourly wages of $15 or more -- into the county. So far, there have been no takers.

But across the nation’s countryside, Democrats have yet to capitalize on Republican vulnerabilities.

In Blaine County, Neb., the nation’s second-poorest in per capita income, Republican chairwoman April Wescott said rural Americans didn’t believe in pointing fingers at politicians.

“We’re used to making do with what we have. We’re less spoiled than most Americans,” she said. “When hard times come, you just get through them. You don’t blame the president or your neighbors. That’s just the way it is.”

Kerry has been unable to define himself in the eyes of rural voters or articulate a plan of economic recovery, according to a bipartisan poll sponsored last week by George Washington University.

“You see a great deal of discontent in rural America, but people there don’t see any options,” said James Moore, an independent political analyst in Portland.

“They don’t hear Kerry talk about issues that concern them, such as water rights and federal ownership of land.”

Don DeGrange, a retired contractor with coral-blue eyes and worn suspenders, sees Bush as a “Christian president” protecting the world from terrorism.

“Frankly, I don’t even know who this Kerry fella is,” he said. “And I’m going to go with who I know.”

Some Just Sitting It Out

Not long ago, Lloyd Walker committed a near-unforgivable conservative faux pas.

The mayor of tiny Greenville, Mich., was miffed that a major refrigerator maker had announced plans to pull up stakes for Mexico, taking with it 2,700 local jobs.

The veteran politician blamed not only the Electrolux factory owners, but U.S. policies that allowed big business to abandon rural towns without the slightest economic penalty.

Speaking at a nationally televised news conference last fall after the Electrolux announcement, Walker lost his cool.

“I said I had never in my life voted for anyone but a Republican for president,” he said in a recent interview. “But then I looked right into the bright lights and admitted it: That may change this year.”

The town’s Republican congressman called from Washington to question Walker’s loyalty to the party. Colleagues clamored for Walker to resign from the Montcalm County Republican Committee.

Walker has stood his ground. “I’m wringing my hands over this election,” he said. “Bush assures us things are getting better. But I don’t see it.”

Rural America is feeling the pinch. As the number of farmers and ranches declines and manufacturers leave, unemployment and personal bankruptcies rise.

“Look around these places and you won’t see any young people,” said Jon M. Bailey, a research director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.

“The couples of child-bearing age and kids in school, they’re all gone. There’s no one to do volunteer work that rural towns depend on, from the fire department to the school board.”

Analysts suggest that support for Bush has waned among those who remain -- the elderly, who become reliant on Social Security and Medicare.

“Some realize they can’t make it under the current economic situation. And they’re turning away from the Republicans,” said Ed Sarpolus, an independent pollster in Lansing, Mich.

But while dissatisfied with Bush, Republicans won’t necessarily vote for his opponent, Sarpolus said: “Some will choose to sit out the election. That’s not good for either candidate.”

If rural Robeson County, N.C., is any indicator, both major parties may be in trouble. Devastated by the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs after trade accords such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, residents took their concerns to Congress last month.

A social services director told the Rural Jobs Caucus and Economic Development Task Force that neither Republican nor Democratic strategies worked.

“These factory pullouts have brought a rise in crime, public assistance and a deep sense of hopelessness,” Mac Legerton, who directs the Center for Community Action in Robeson County, said afterward.

“We’re not just talking about a loss of jobs; we’re talking a way of life. There’s a crisis in rural America. And neither party is doing enough to solve it.”

In Sherman County, Ore., wheat farmer Steven Burnet has watched the economic drought slowly squeeze the joy out of his life. For one thing, he sees his wife, Patty, less often: She’s been forced to go back to work as a substitute teacher.

Something else distresses him almost as much.

“People around here don’t smile as much as they used to,” said Burnet, 63. “You see them and they just don’t look as happy as they once did. It’s just the weight of this bad economy hanging on their shoulders.”

Burnet sees little chance things would improve with the election of a new president. So, just as he’s done for the last 45 years, he’ll vote Republican.

“I’m going to vote with my conservative values in mind, just like I always have.”