Nebraska’s reddest counties: fertile soil for Trump victory
HYANNIS, Neb. — If the incoming leader of the free world ever pulls on a pair of cowboy boots and treads the sandy soils of Grant County, he can shout “This is Trump country!” to the endless horizon.
“Bigly,” he might add for emphasis.
Unlike the tears, protests and “Not My President” posters that erupted in urban Nebraska after Donald Trump’s improbable White House victory, most residents of rural Nebraska had smiles on their faces and a little more giddyap in their strides.
“Relieved,” said Cliff Dailey, a businessman and elected official in Hyannis, a village of 185 people roughly 365 miles northwest of Omaha. “I’d say they were just relieved. Everybody was just shaking their heads and smiling and saying ‘I can’t believe we won.’ ”
When he says “everybody,” he’s hardly exaggerating.
Trump won 367 votes in Grant County, while Hillary Clinton received just 20. That’s 93 percent of the vote versus 5 percent.
Overall, Trump claimed about 60 percent of ballots cast in Nebraska compared with Clinton’s 34 percent. But in a region where the tallest thing is a grass-covered sand dune, it wasn’t nearly that close.
Grant County narrowly finished first in rural Nebraska’s stampede for Trump, just ahead of Hayes County. But the brash New York real-estate developer won at least 85 percent of the vote in another 17 of Nebraska’s 93 counties.
Such lopsided percentages make rural Nebraska stand out among Trump’s other strongholds nationally.
In Grant and Hayes, Nebraska has the third- and fourth-highest Trump-supporting counties in the nation, based on a World-Herald review of official state election websites and election results collected by the Associated Press and posted on the Politico website.
Only two small-population counties in Texas edged out the top Trump counties in Nebraska.
Grant and Hayes Counties in Nebraska were more pro-Trump than any county in the deeply red states of Wyoming, West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Alabama, Kentucky, South Dakota, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Kansas, South Dakota and Montana each had a single county give more than 90 percent support to Trump, but none of those intensely pro-Trump counties could surpass Grant and Hayes Counties. It should be noted that states and counties are still finalizing their election results.
It’s not immediately apparent why a reality TV star from Manhattan would appeal so strongly to voters in the Nebraska Sand Hills and Panhandle, places where the only subways you’ll find are a brand of sandwich.
But what’s also known as Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District has a long tradition of voting for Republican presidential candidates. Strong GOP support in the 3rd District is a major reason why Nebraska hasn’t helped elect a Democratic presidential candidate outright since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 — although voters in Omaha’s 2nd Congressional District did send one electoral vote to President Barack Obama in 2008.
Historically, the GOP is even more firmly entrenched in Grant County. Not since 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt sought his second of four terms in the White House, have the county’s voters elected a Democrat.
County Clerk Christee Haney said about 40 of the county’s 640 residents are currently registered as Democrats, and “I’m not even sure they’re Democrats in their hearts.”
Rural Nebraska has gradually been turning a deeper shade of red for decades. The showdown between Trump and Clinton appears to have accelerated that trend.
Since the 2000 presidential election in Nebraska, 67 counties have seen a decline in registered voters, according to Matt Waite, a professor of practice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Of those 67 counties that lost voters, 64 of them went stronger for Trump than any other presidential candidate in the past five elections, Waite said. And 61 of those shrinking counties became more Republican as a percentage over the same period of time.
Cattle ranchers, farmers and business owners in rural Nebraska cite a long and familiar list of Trump promises they liked: cracking down on illegal immigration, reducing regulation on business and agriculture, protecting the rights of gun owners, repealing the Affordable Care Act and checking the growth and power of the federal government.
But more than anything, they said they voted for Trump because of what he wasn’t: an establishment Democrat who promised to continue the policies of Obama.
“Drain the swamp. Let’s make some changes, let’s get the establishment out of there,” said Pat Keslar of Hyannis, a motel owner who also breeds American quarter horses and hunting Labrador retrievers.
Most of the Republicans interviewed for this story said Trump wasn’t their first choice to lead the party. But not Keslar, who heard Trump speak in person several years ago at a motel industry conference. Keslar said he believes Trump can make the federal government more efficient and pro-business.
“Thank God for the Electoral College,” he added.
Like other Trump supporters, he said some of the statements Trump made about women “are not right,” but he quickly pointed at former President Bill Clinton’s checkered history of dealing with the opposite sex.
Nearly the entire population of Grant County — 98 percent — identifies itself as non-Hispanic whites, according to records of the U.S. Census Bureau. The estimated median income in 2014 was a little over $45,000 and the majority of jobs are tied to agriculture and the school system.
Mona Vinton, who operates a ranch in Grant County with her husband, Dan, rejected the notion that racist beliefs or intolerance of non-Christians may have factored in to Trump’s rural support. Like others, she blamed “the media” for perpetuating a stereotype, along with one that says rural residents are uneducated and misinformed.
Vinton said her first choice among the Republican field of candidates was retired surgeon Ben Carson, who is African-American.
“To me, there’s only one race: the human race,” she said.
But that’s not to suggest that immigration isn’t a major concern in places like Grant County. Residents repeatedly expressed support for Trump’s promise to build a wall on the nation’s southern border and to vet immigrants from Middle Eastern nations.
Dailey, who serves as chairman of the Hyannis Village Board, said wanting to have secure borders and control who enters the country is about national security, not discrimination.
The rising cost of health care is another big issue in rural Nebraska. Dailey, 60, owns a convenience store and a tire and trailer shop called Cow Country Sales and Service. He said the private health insurance he buys for himself and his wife recently increased by several hundred dollars and now approaches $2,000 per month.
If Trump doesn’t repeal Obamacare, Dailey said he hopes the incoming administration can at least find a way to bring costs down.
James “Doc” Moore is a retired history professor from Cornell University who now lives in Sioux County in far northwestern Nebraska. He serves as the Democratic Party chairman in a county where Trump got 84 percent of the vote.
Based on numerous conversations with Republican friends and neighbors, Moore said he’s convinced what happened at the polls was more anti-Obama than it was pro-Trump.
“They did definitely like the plain, straight talk,” he said. “They really liked that.”
Being a Democrat takes commitment in some parts of rural Nebraska right now, said Vince Powers, the outgoing chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. He blamed the saturation of conservative talk radio, television and social media for creating an ideological echo chamber in cattle country.
Democrats currently have 83 county chairmen in Nebraska. Among the 10 counties without one is Grant County, said Bud Pettigrew of Valentine, the party official in charge of recruiting county leaders.
Some Democrats in the reddest counties keep a very low profile, Pettigrew said, especially if they own businesses. He said some “zealots” in his community have stolen Clinton signs and even bumper stickers off his car. A few have gotten in his face, he added.
“This is America,” he said. “You should be able to express your political beliefs without fear of violence or intimidation.”
Terry Sigler of North Platte is a longtime party organizer who fondly recalls the days when Democratic candidates such as J.J. Exon, Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson could compete and win in statewide elections. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a call for help to place yard signs throughout the 3rd District would attract several hundred volunteers.
A recent call for the Clinton campaign drew maybe a dozen people, Sigler said. Party chairmen in western Nebraska were given only a handful of Clinton signs so resources could be concentrated in Omaha.
Even though North Platte has a large number of railroad workers who belong to a labor union, Clinton got only 18 percent of the vote in Lincoln County.
“I have one bright side,” Sigler said. “The younger progressives are starting to get involved, the Bernie (Sanders) supporters.”
Dick Peters, an 88-year-old former auto mechanic from Hyannis, is one of the few people who was alive the last time Grant County voted for a Democrat. His grandfather voted for FDR in 1936 and always told Peters that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer under the Republicans.
“I’m a firm believer in what my granddad said,” Peters added.
Peters voted for Clinton and he’s not afraid to admit it. And he argued that Obama has been a good president, saying the country is in far better shape now than it was in 2008.
Kimberly Nuss is a registered independent in Hyannis who said she leans left in most elections. There was never a chance she would vote for Trump, she said, largely because of the offensive things he said about women.
Yet she said she can separate a political figure she opposes from the community where she lives.
The 36-year-old school art teacher moved to Hyannis from Lincoln nine years ago. She said she loves the Sand Hills and its people, calling Hyannis a wonderful place to live and raise a family.
It has not been her experience that people in cattle country are close-minded or racist, she said. And she spends her days working with bright children who know there’s a diverse world beyond the buff-colored hills of their home.
“It’s OK for me to be the weird Hillary supporter,” she said. “People need to know it’s OK not to think the way everybody thinks.”