‘No Christian could vote Democrat’: Inside the most Republican county in America

Andrew Buncombe
·7-min read
Brian Bales voted twice for Barack Obama but now supports Donald Trump (Andrew Buncombe)
Brian Bales voted twice for Barack Obama but now supports Donald Trump (Andrew Buncombe)

In parts of Appalachia, the pace of change can now be measured by the whizz of a high-speed internet connection.

For many years, swathes of eastern Kentucky suffered many of the deprivations of being disconnected from the wider world - poor health, poverty and few opportunities.

In the last few years, high speed internet, and with it the chance to tele-commute, has had a transformational impact

And yet in Jackson County, 60 miles southeast of Lexington, some things have not budged. This county of 13,000 people has voted Republican since the US Civil War, and it is hugely enamoured by the current Republican president, Donald Trump, and Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell.

In 2016, Jackson County, which has just one small town, McKee, which is “wet“ whereas the rest of the county is “dry”, went for Mr Trump 88 per cent. Every indication is that it will do so again.

“You won’t find many Democrats up here,” said Anthony Brody, 65, sitting in his truck outside a Walgreens pharmacy.

A woman seated alongside him, Connie Ray, said she too would be voting for Mr Trump and Mr McConnell. She said Democrats wanted to “kill little babies”.

Nearby, just about to leave the parking lot, Tricia Lewis and Bunny Tilley, were similarly adamant. They liked Mr Trump “because everyone else hates him” and thought Mr McConnell had done a lot to help miners in the area who had lost their jobs as the industry declined.

Mary Gabbard said no Christian could vote for the DemocratsAndrew Buncombe
Mary Gabbard said no Christian could vote for the DemocratsAndrew Buncombe

Was it not time for a change, given he had already served six terms. What about his challenger, Amy McGrath?

“She should be at home looking after her children,” claimed Ms Tilley.

When it was pointed out the 45-year-old Ms McGrath had been a fighter plot for the US Marines and the first woman to fly a combat mission for the Corps, she said: “That doesn’t matter.”

Some in Jackson County, located in the Daniel Boone National Forest, currently lit orange with the colours of autumn, said they were not opposed voting for a Democrat per se.

But Mary Gabbard admitted the last time she voted for a Democrat was for Jimmy Carter in 1976, and suggested it was because “Jimmy” also went to church.

“The Democrats are for everything the bible is against, and I don’t feel any Christian could vote Democrat,” said the 74-year-old. “They are for abortions, killing little babies, they are for the homosexual-gay rights. They’re just for for everything that the bible is against.”

Her husband, 83-year-old Bobby Gabbard, a friendly man who was happy enough to pose for a photograph in front of the large Republican banner set in his lawn, said he never voted for a Democrat.

Asked if they would be watching the vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, himself an outspoken conservative Christian, they said they would be going to church instead.Ten miles away, in the community of Ammville, Brian Bales said he had once been Democrat and twice voted for Barack Obama. He said Mr Obama campaigned as a “real statesman” though he thought his presidency had brought little meaningful change.

Now, he said, the Democratic Party no longer stood for the interests of working people. He voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and will do so again.

“He’s a businessman. We need a businessman in charge,” he said.

A number or organisations in the half-dozen states that include part of the Appalachians have worked to present a more complete and nuanced context of the mountains and their residents. Most of the time they appear in the news is it in stories associated with poverty, opioid addiction and black lung disease.

And those issues remain very real. A report published last year by USA Today suggested that ten of the worst 25 counties to live in in the US in terms of life expectancy, the number of people with a bachelors degree and the poverty rate, were located in Kentucky. Among them was Jackson County, which has a poverty rate of 33 per cent, and where “Gabbard” is a common surname.

Carla Gabbard, 46, said she thought the mountains were changing, and gave credit to the high-speed internet connection, work on which started five years ago. She said she worked for a non-profit organisation that recruited and trained people in places such as Jackson County, to work from home for national companies.

She said she believed that for many years, the people of Appalachia had suffered from a discriminatory view that saw them as lazy and backwards.

“People here want to work,” she said. “But it has only been the last five or six years that they have had these opportunities”

She said she had not decided who she would be voting for this year and said she intended to watch the vice presidential debate to help make up her mind.

High speed internet recently arrived in Jackson CountyAndrew Buncombe
High speed internet recently arrived in Jackson CountyAndrew Buncombe

Keith Gabbard, CEO of Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (PRTC), is no relation to Ms Gabbard though her non-profit makes use of the high speed internet.

He said the cooperative had started in 1950 when there was no telephone service in Jackson County. It worked to lay land lines, and later provided dial-up internet connections and cable television.

Five years ago, with the help of $50m in grants or loans it had started laying the optic fibres carrying the high speed internet. Now, anyone in Jackson and Owsley counties, can get speeds of up to one gigabit per second. There is a plan to upgrade the system to ten gigabits.

Mr Gabbard said he had gone away to college but wanted to live and work where he was born. He started working for the cooperative and 24 years ago became the CEO.

He said the impact of the service had been transformational. And after an article about the cooperative appeared in the New Yorker magazine, he had been contacted by people in other states asking if he could replicate the service for them. A neighbouring third county had also been connected.

“In our two counties alone, there have been more than 1,000 jobs created with this work,” he said. “A lot of people working from Apple, they're doing tech support for Apple. It's pretty amazing what's happening here. If you had a brick and mortar building that had 1,000 jobs, that’d be a huge story.”

Previously, he said, those people who did have jobs in the area were likely working for minimum wage.

“These jobs are better than minimum wage, they're probably twice as much. And they got benefits. And you can actually advance,” he said.

The point about connectivity being essential to create new jobs and to provide education to children, had been made earlier in the week by Ms McGrath, who told an event in Nelson County that 30 per cent of children did not have access to the internet.

“When I was at school, the route to success was paper and a pen,” she said. “Now, it’s a computer and access to the internet.”

Can high-speed internet alone be enough change attitudes and political opinions, especially those which have been borne so long?

A 17-year-old woman who asked not to be named, was not so sure. She said the county was very conservative and she denounced the way women were objectified. “A woman should not lose her job if she is pregnant,” she said.

She said that as a child when her family went out of the state on vacation she cried when they returned to Kentucky.

Did she things were changing?

“Recently they played a video that showed the whole town since 1980 until now and it seems the same,” she said.

She added: “I think it is really hard to have change because parents teach the same stuff to their kids and it just gets passed on.”

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