Lincoln County has voted for a Republican for president every year since 1948. Despite Donald Trump’s video scandal and open war with party leaders, GOP voters there are mostly sticking with the nominee. But many aren’t so happy about it.
DAVENPORT, Lincoln County — Garry Rosman can’t remember the last time he voted for a Democrat for president.
It’s been a while. Maybe never. He thinks they spend too much.
That streak probably won’t end this year.
But for the first time in decades, Rosman, a fourth-generation wheat farmer in rural Lincoln County, isn’t sold on the Republican candidate either. He’s not sure who he’ll vote for.
He looks at Donald Trump and sees a successful businessman, but he also sees six bankruptcies and Trump University accused of fraud and headed toward trial, and he’s dubious about where that success came from.
“The guy looks at bankruptcy as a tool for enhancing his business; that bothers me to the core of my personal belief. Because I’ve got people who have gone bankrupt on me and I’m out dollars, hard-earned dollars,” Rosman said. “If he’s willing to do that to the maid at Trump casino, what’s he willing to do to some poor person in Syria when he wants to bomb them?”
Behind the Vote
About the SeriesThe 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.
Lincoln County, about as reliably Republican as any county on the West Coast, is going to vote for Trump in November just as surely as Washington state is going to vote for Clinton.
Interviews with residents originally were conducted before a tape leaked of Trump bragging about groping and kissing women without their permission. When contacted again after the tape was leaked, nobody said the 2005 recording changed their mind on the election. But there is a hesitancy about Trump in these farming communities, one that comes with a candidate as unorthodox and unpredictable as any in memory.
“There really is no conservative candidate for president,” said Carol Paul, the chairwoman of the Lincoln County Republican Party and a firm Trump supporter.
“A lot of people were saying they’re not going to vote, but now they’re saying, ‘Yes, we have to vote, because we don’t want Hillary,’ ” Paul said. “They know what we’re going to get with Hillary; they don’t know what they’re going to get with Trump.”
Just as Trump did, Paul dismissed the lewd boasts as “locker room talk” from 11 years ago.
“Not a lot of enthusiasm”
It’s been 68 years since Lincoln County voted for a Democrat for president. Barack Obama won Washington with 56 percent of the vote in 2012. He got 28 percent in Lincoln County.
In Lincoln County’s August primary, Republicans won every race where they had a candidate on the ballot. In the one race with no Republican, attorney general, the Democratic incumbent still managed just 52 percent in Lincoln County against an unknown Libertarian candidate.
Demographics-wise, Lincoln County, population 10,500 and not growing, is fertile ground for Trump support. It is the least diverse county in the state, almost 93 percent white. One in four adults has a concealed-weapons permit, by far the largest percentage in the state. A quarter of the county is over the age of 65.
Gentle hills of wheat, shimmering iridescent, dominate both the landscape and the local economy.
The county weathered the recession better than many, buoyed by the continued demand for wheat and other crops. But it’s not booming.
“There’s been no growth, but Lincoln County seems to be fairly stable through up and down cycles,” Doug Tweedy, a state economist, said.
Wheat prices now are less than a third of what they were in 2008.
“Nothing cures high prices like high prices,” Rosman is fond of saying, darkly. “The price goes up high enough, they raise wheat everywhere and suddenly they’re awash in wheat.”
About 90 percent of the wheat from Rosman’s 1,400 acres is exported, mostly to Japan.
He worries that Trump’s promises of tariffs and trade protectionism could cause other countries to retaliate, hurting that market.
“Agriculture in this state lives and dies by export,” Rosman said.
Peter Davenport retired to Lincoln County 10 years ago, after a career as a Russian translator, a University of Washington professor and a biotech entrepreneur. For 20 years he has run the National UFO Reporting Center, which now operates out of an abandoned missile silo near Davenport.
He talks about the Second Amendment and says Clinton won’t uphold the Constitution. He talks about Whitewater and says she has a long history of lying.
A firm Trump supporter, Davenport, 68, nonetheless says the Republican candidate’s history with lies and misstatements “concerns me profoundly.”
“It’s one of the reasons, I suspect, that both candidates are experiencing such a negative reaction from the American people,” he said. “They both seem to have a similar track record in that respect.”
Among some lifelong Republicans, support for Trump — a candidate who has been on various sides of bedrock issues like guns, abortion and the national debt — comes less with excitement than a sense of necessity.
Scott Hutsell, one of the county’s three commissioners (all Republicans), is voting for Trump, primarily because he can’t stomach the thought of Clinton appointing as many as four Supreme Court justices. But he’s not that excited about it, and he can’t quite put his finger on why.
“There’s definitely not a lot of enthusiasm out there,” Hutsell said. “As staunch a Republican as I am, I don’t have a Trump-Pence sign up and I don’t know if that’s because I’m worried about what my friends will say. If they see that I’m a supporter, are they going to go, ‘How can you support him?’ ”
“Business to take care of”
James Kane has no doubts. There are a couple of Trump signs in the window of The Reardan Store, a small grocery he co-owns 15 minutes east of Davenport. “We are working to make the R-Store great again,” Kane, 43, wrote on Facebook after taking over the store earlier this year.
Inside, eight American flags hang together, floor to ceiling, covering a storage space.
He sees in Trump a blunt, plain-spoken leader.
“Watch anything the guy’s said over the years; he really hasn’t changed,” Kane said. “He’s not hiding anything. He does speak a language that resonates with the majority of America. They say that he’s big among uneducated Americans. Well, that’s because they understand him. For the first time, they understand what a politician is saying.”
Kane, a recruiter for the Washington Army National Guard for 15 years, said he’d heard a lot worse than Trump’s boasts of sexual assault on the recently released tape.
He doesn’t like the passivity he says he sees in the military under Obama.
Russian jets buzzing American ships?
“You give them a warning and then you fire,” Kane said.
Two American boats drift into Iranian waters and are briefly detained?
“How did they get their weapons?” he asked. “They should never have been taken down without a fight. That’s the culture that’s been created.”
He sees something ominous in the focus on social and racial movements — Black Lives Matter, transgender rights — that he sees as dividing Americans.
“They put those kinds of things at the forefront when we’re fighting wars overseas,” Kane said. “We’ve got business to take care of; why are we worried about who’s using what bathroom?”
“I was done”
At Harrington’s Memorial Hall, several miles south of Davenport, the men and women, by custom, sit at separate tables at the seniors lunches served four days a week.
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The town, population 450, has its share of shuttered storefronts, but it also has a growing student body at its one school. And there’s a functioning opera house and a nine-hole golf course.
Becky Hardy, 27, moved here after graduating from Eastern Washington University. A classically trained pianist, she performs and teaches lessons in the area.
She grew up in Snohomish County in a family that hunted, and remembers getting NRA literature in the mail.
“A Democrat is never aligned with any of the Second Amendment things,” she said.
Her husband, Stephen, 28, grew up farming wheat in Harrington, but his family sold the farm about 10 years ago and he works, remotely, for a tech consulting firm.
Until this May, they were the state committeeman and committeewoman for the Lincoln County Republican Party.
Neither has ever voted for a Democrat.
Both quit the Republican Party after Trump became the nominee.
“If being a Republican meant that you supported Donald Trump,” Becky said, “I could not be under that name anymore.”
The final straw was Trump’s call for killing the families of terrorists, a war crime.
“It didn’t matter what other good or bad he said after that point,” Becky said. “I was done.”
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Already firmly anti-Trump, the recently released tape didn’t surprise her at all.
“This is the character of the guy that’s been here the whole time,” she said.
Both supported the Libertarian-minded Ron Paul in previous elections.
Both are dismayed by what they see as Trump’s appeals to people’s fears — fears of guns being confiscated, fears of a country slipping away.
“At the state convention for the Republican Party, we probably heard the word ‘fear’ more than any other,” Becky said.
She is leaning toward voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson, while Stephen will probably leave the presidential ballot blank.
Like most others in the area, he has no doubt Lincoln County will go to Trump.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said, “to see how people feel about themselves after this election.”