BEHIND THE VOTE | Cowlitz County is a stronghold for the type of white, blue-collar men who are the backbone of Donald Trump’s national support. It’s long tilted Democratic, but disappearing jobs and slumping wages have put working-class votes up for grabs.

Share story

Dave Wendel and Greg Williams work in the same Longview paper mill. They belong to the same union. And like many in this rugged part of Southwest Washington, they share a love of the outdoors and the Second Amendment. Wendel has a scabbard on his motorcycle to sheathe a rifle; Williams often carries a Glock 9-mm handgun around town.

They help make Cowlitz County a bastion of white, blue-collar men, with one of the highest percentages of such residents in the state.

This is where Donald Trump’s support is strongest, some polls say, with white men who did not graduate from a four-year college.

Cowlitz’s 105,000 residents are not so easily typecast, though. Wendel is voting for Hillary Clinton, Williams for Trump.

Cowlitz’s history of mills, manufacturing and union jobs has tilted its voting toward Democrats going back to the New Deal.

But it’s a community in transition. Timber and manufacturing jobs have declined. Wages have dropped. Unemployment remains above state and national rates.

“The county has had some success with diversification,” according to state economist Scott Bailey, “but it has been a case of two steps forward, one step back.”

In talking with Wendel, Williams and others, certain issues come up: particularly jobs, guns and the well-being of future generations.

“I’d agree people are generally disgruntled about the security of jobs and what the lifestyles of their kids and grandkids will be,” said Kurt Gallow, president of Local 153 of the pulp and paper workers’ union.

Obviously, Cowlitz politics are shaped by more than working-class dudes. Women cast 53 percent of its votes in 2012’s November election. Women account for almost half of Cowlitz’s workforce and they dominate employment in health care, finance and education.

But the county’s saw-toothed hilltops testify to the sway of timber-related industry. Just under half of Cowlitz’s land is still owned by Weyerhaeuser.

And “the recession affected men more than women in Cowlitz County,” said economist Bailey. That raises the prospect of working-class men as anxious, volatile voters in the coming election.

“The overall frustration so many are feeling about the presidential election comes to a head in those timber counties,” said pollster Stuart Elway, who grew up in nearby Grays Harbor County. “It’s sort of a microcosm, isn’t it?”

Parents were better off

Wendel, a pipefitter, has worked 21 years at the mill long known as Longview Fibre. A Canadian company bought it in 2007. The firm modernized and increased production, reduced staffing and sold the mill for $1 billion six years later to Illinois-based KapStone.

The number of union workers at the mill, which turns wood chips into paper, has plunged, Wendel said, from about 1,125 to 725. His family’s health-care benefits have been reduced, he said, essentially by Obamacare’s planned 40 percent tax on so-called Cadillac health plans.

Looking to save millions in taxes, KapStone replaced its high-cost policies with less expensive ones. Wendel said his wife’s recent heart surgery cost $6,000 in out-of-pocket payments his insurance would have covered several years ago.

“I don’t believe I’m better off than my dad,” said Wendel, 50, whose father spent his career at Weyerhaeuser. “It seems my parents had more discretionary time and money.”

Still, Wendel, Local 153’s financial secretary, will not vote for Trump.

Workers’ rights, corporate behavior and a widening gap in classes leads him to back Clinton — although not with enthusiasm. He considers her “the lesser of two evils.”

He also believes Democrats stand a better chance of fixing the tax on high-cost insurance plans, which takes effect in 2020, than Republicans who want to repeal Obamacare.

Behind the Vote

About the Series
The Seattle Times is exploring how the state’s political geography — from wheat country to Seattle’s tech centers, from suburbia to pulp-mill towns — is shifting in this historic election year.
  • Blue-collar jobs in timber and manufacturing continue to wane, leaving a cadre of traditionally Democratic voters economically and politically adrift.
  • The state’s Latino population is on the rise. But during last year’s general election in Yakima County — now home to as many Latinos as whites — only a small percentage of voters with Spanish surnames voted.
  • Puget Sound suburbs, once reliable ground for Republican candidates, are growing bluer as college-educated women tend to vote Democratic.
  • GOP voters in reliably Republican Lincoln County struggle with Trump — but he’ll win there anyway.
  • Even in close families and friendships, presidential politics has created such a strain that some people have agreed to stop talking until the election is over.
In stories, graphics and videos, “Behind the Vote” offers an election-year portrait of Washington state.

But old-line Cowlitz union Democrats like Wendel may be thinning in numbers.

Big employers such as the Reynolds aluminum smelter have shut down. Others have trimmed their ranks. At its high point in the 1970s, Weyerhaeuser employed 5,200 people in the county, said County Commissioner Mike Karnofski, who spent 37 years working for the timber giant. It’s down to about 1,500 employees now. A change in philosophy also has the company relying more on contract loggers than its own, Karnofski said.

Cowlitz has seen its median income slip from 13th highest among Washington counties in 1990 to 24th in 2014. The number of homeless students in the Longview School District increased from 134 in 2007-08 to 430 in 2014-15.

“The percentage of union workers has gone down. I think you see that reflected in party demographics and ticket-splitting,” said Karnofski, a Democrat running for re-election against Arne Mortensen, chairman of the Cowlitz County Republican Central Committee.

In every presidential election since 1988 the county has favored the Democratic candidate.

But Cowlitz has also preferred the Republican candidate for governor in the past two general elections. It gave Bill Bryant a six-point edge over incumbent Democrat Jay Inslee in last month’s primary.

Two years ago, statewide voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 594, which expanded background checks to private transfers or sales of guns, common to gun shows. With 75 percent support, King County provided most of the margin of victory.

Cowlitz voted against I-594.

“We can’t transfer firearms among family members without going through a dealer,” Wendel said of I-594’s requirements. Most urban liberals “don’t understand the importance of our hunting and fishing lifestyle,” he said.

Some see gun rights as a proxy for a conservative streak in Cowlitz and its tendency to balance top-of-the-ticket Democrats with votes for Republicans, lower taxes and fewer regulations.

Guns, immigrants, federal land

Williams, a millwright at KapStone, said he’s backing Trump because he’ll better protect American jobs, values and constitutional rights, especially those granted by the Second Amendment.

Williams, 37, said he wasn’t political until a few years ago, after he took up gold mining as a hobby. Then he learned that federal lands he believes belong to taxpayers were locked to prospectors. In places like Oregon’s Malheur County, he said, it’s because of the government’s interest in staking claims to valuable minerals like uranium.

That kind of federal reach, and his concern about a “tyrannist” government, are the chief reasons he’s an ardent advocate of Washington’s open-carry law and elected, rather than appointed, sheriffs. “It’s a control thing. You don’t have that higher federal level” interfering, he said.

Immigration concerns Williams more than some of his co-workers.

“We’re sheltered,” said Gallow, his union president, of Cowlitz’s population, which is 85 percent white. “We don’t see a lot here.”

But Williams believes immigrants are receiving government benefits that should be going to veterans. And he sees others as a threat to American life, whether it’s in eroding the importance of God and the flag, or by terrorism.

“I’ve worked with Muslims and I don’t see a problem with them. But I do have a problem with the influx of immigrants that aren’t being screened,” he said.

He winces at some of Trump’s statements, but takes them as a sign he’s not a pandering politician. “I like his rawness, in a mischievous way maybe,” Williams said. “If you want to see some fruit, you need to shake the tree.”

“Economy and safety”

Devon Ward, 45, was a hammer-swinging, bridge-building ironworker. For the past nine years he’s hung street signs and signals and painted crosswalks for the city of Longview. He’s a union shop steward.

Ward said he voted for Bill Clinton in his younger years. But no more.

Ted Cruz, not Trump, was his guy in this year’s GOP primary. “This is politics. I bit my tongue.” His truck bumper now sports a “Make America Great Again” Trump sticker.

Democrats used to be for the working class, Ward said. But he perceived a shift.

“Ask a conservative their priorities and they’ll say ‘the economy and safety,’ ” Ward said. “Ask a liberal and they’ll tell you ‘global warming, the environment and wage equality.’ It seems they want to save the world.”

Trump’s candor frustrates Ward at times. “I wish he wouldn’t spout like a buffoon,” Ward said. But he doesn’t believe Trump’s comments are more divisive than what Barack Obama said in 2008 about working-class voters in hardscrabble towns.

“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” Obama said.

To some in Cowlitz County, that’s the sound of liberal elitism.

Which way will it go?

Economically, Cowlitz is at a “turning point,” said Shawn Nyman, president of the county labor council. And this fall’s election is infused with concerns about declining financial security and young people leaving the area for better jobs.

Nyman doesn’t see either candidate, though, inspiring a lot of hope among the rank and file. Nyman said she sees little support for Trump. But “I see only a little more for Hillary,” she added.

Will Cowlitz’s blue-collar voters stay true to their roots and align with a credibility-challenged career politician? Or, will they bolt for a boastful billionaire’s promise of happy days again?

Elway, the pollster, did a little informal sampling at his recent high-school reunion in Hoquiam. Among his classmates — from another timber county to the north with slow growth and high unemployment — most claimed they weren’t voting, he said.

“There was a sense of ‘We don’t trust Clinton’ and ‘We think Trump is insane.’ ”

Seattle Times reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.