There are 4,581 registered Democrats in Elliott County, outnumbering the 429 Republicans
Through folded green valleys and down roads paved atop mountain ridges sits a place like many others in this impoverished and beautiful region. But one thing is not the same.
The basic makeup of Elliott County – nearly 100% white, one-third in poverty and land-locked by deeply conservative counties – belies a truly incredible fact: It has never once voted for a Republican for president. No county in America has a Democratic streak as long as this improbable one in eastern Kentucky, which started voting for Democrats back when being a Democrat was an entirely different thing.
Consider it: They voted for Barack Obama twice, for Bill Clinton twice, and a combined six times against George W. Bush, his father and Ronald Reagan.
It’s not the kind of big county that will swing elections. There are just 4,581 registered Democrats in Elliott County. They far outnumber the 429 registered Republicans. They are either the greatest political anomaly in the country, or they value tradition so much that they resisted the countless generational and political shifts of the 147 years since the county’s founding.
Never mind all of that — they voted for Donald Trump 70%-26%.
An unusual bastion of Democratic strength
This is a place where tradition rules – where folks inherit their family’s politics along with the land.
“When my daddy took me to register to vote, he said, ‘I’m not going to tell you how to vote,’ but he said, ‘Our family has always been Democratic,’” said Judy Pennington, 71, in the diner she and her husband opened here more than four decades ago. “I knew then: Vote Democrat.”
And so it goes here in town. People can trace their Democratic roots back two generations to their fathers and grandfathers, many of whom had never received a paycheck until they were hired by Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in the mid-1930s.
“For the first time, our farmers or our farm workers had a chance to earn an income,” Gayle Clevenger, a retired local schoolteacher, said. “They became loyal to the Democratic party and this was passed down by tradition from father to son to son to grandson, and has pretty much been the way we have voted.”
It also helps that the top Democrat in the Statehouse is a hometown kid.
Rocky Adkins, now Minority Leader after Democrats lost 17 seats in the chamber, was born in Sandy Hook and played guard for the Morehead State basketball team in the ’80s.
Adkins’ work bringing dollars back to his sparsely populated region is no more evident than on Route 7, where in October workers finished a 16-year, $90-million project to widen and re-pave the road that leads out of town toward Interstate 64.
The town also named its library for the 16-term state legislator, who got the state to pay almost $4 million for it in 2006. The library has more than two times the number of books than residents it serves.
Despite Trump’s 44-point victory in Elliott County, Adkins, the Democrat, won 85% of the vote.
“The people love Rocky,” Clevenger said.
‘I thought he was talking to me’
They don’t love Trump, necessarily, but his victory brings this county in step with the rest of the state, which hasn’t gone for a Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996.
Trump is an outsider, they say, who will shake things up in an inward-looking Washington that has forgotten about them.
“When Donald Trump said he was for the little people, I thought he was talking to me,” Pennington said. “That’s when he got my vote.”
Gene Johnson, a retired carpenter who lives on a sprawling plot of land in a modest house down the driveway from his daughter, said that despite his lifelong affiliation as a Democrat, he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton.
“I didn’t particularly care for either one of them, but … I thought Trump would make a better president,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think either one of them … should be president. I didn’t think either one was qualified enough. Hillary, some of the things that she stood for, especially abortion, our Second Amendment, I didn’t – I couldn’t vote for her especially (because of) that.”
And then there’s the coal issue. Clinton famously told West Virginians at a town hall in March that she was “going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Not that the industry needed her help. There are more mines in eastern Kentucky than all of West Virginia – but the region’s production is less than a third of their neighboring state. Coal industry jobs have been dwindling for decades due to globalization, regulation and cheaper natural gas resources, among other reasons.
Clinton’s stark and direct statement haunted her throughout pockets of blue collar America, including here in Sandy Hook.
“I want (Trump) to bring coal back so people have jobs and everything,” said Dale Adkins, a lifelong Democrat. “Hillary want(ed) to do away with everything.”
“Bill Clinton was a pretty good president,” Adkins added. “But I didn’t think his wife was gonna amount to nothing so I didn’t vote for her.”
The last of its kind
As Eliot Nelson wrote for The Huffington Post in 2013, Elliott County was the sole remaining majority-white rural Southern county in America to vote for a Democrat in the 2012 election. No longer.
When Nelson wrote from Sandy Hook three years ago, he interviewed Rocky Adkins. Trump’s political earthquake was barely a quiver, and the local lawmaker not only thought his hometown county would continue its streak, but that Clinton would carry other places like it, too.
“She is one of the Democrats who in my opinion can bring the South back to the Democrats,” he told Nelson. “I believe that with all of my heart.”
This month, just back from a family vacation after a bruising election for his state and national party, Adkins is keeping an optimistic outlook.
“I’m hopeful that (Trump) can bring jobs back. I’m hopeful that he can get the Republican congress to fund his infrastructure projects,” Adkins said. “That’s very important in rebuilding our communities.”
Time for something new
Back in his house, Johnson says he’ll be keeping his eye on Trump.
“I’m watching the news every day, I’m seeing that the people that he’s picking for his Cabinet. I’m hopeful that he will pick the right choices, hopeful that he will make a good president,” he said.
“Time will tell.”
Correction: This item has been updated to reflect the correct number of incumbent seats Democrats lost in the state House of Representatives. It was 17.