Like most people here I was deeply disappointed in the recent county commission elections in Blount County in which three excellent Democratic commissioners were voted out of office. Since I moved to Blount County in 2007 I've seen this pattern play out twice before already. In August 2008 Democratic judge Mike Meares was defeated by Republican David Duggan by over 60-40. And in November the county voted for John McCain over Barack Obama roughly 70-30 - despite the fact that the rest of the nation voted 53-46 for Obama. This is a deeply Republican county.
But just how long has this county been so Republican? We always hear "since the Civil War." To look at the numbers from the 19th century not only confirms this theory, but also reveals some interesting comparisons. Reading through Durwood Dunn's excellent "Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community, 1818-1837" I noticed a chart with election returns for Blount County and for Cades Cove. As a general rule, Cades Cove was more Democratic than the county as a whole. In some ways this still holds up - Happy Valley, which is geographically the most like old Cades Cove is actually one of the most Democratic precincts in the county. So how did the county as a whole vote in the late 19th century?
In the first election after the Civil War Ulysses Grant got 92% of the vote in Blount County. Obviously the disfranchisement and harassment of ex-Confederates led to this lopsided margin. But the number of voters - 1,361 - was significant enough to demonstrate massive community support for the GOP standard-bearer.
By the 1890s the pattern held true. In the realigning 1896 election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, McKinley won Blount County 73.4% to 26.6%. Yes, Barack Obama got a greater share of the vote in Blount County than did William Jennings Bryan! More remarkable was the fact that McKinley was detested in most of the rural South as a symbol of the Northeastern banking and industrial elite while Bryan and his famous "Cross of Gold" perfectly encapsulated the evangelical and populist spirit of the white South at the time. But not in Blount County.
Nearly every election after that has produced a similar result: Republicans get between 65 and 75 percent of the vote.
What this means for party politics in this county is hard to say. Of course we need a vigorous Democratic opposition to the dominant GOP. But we also need to poke and provoke the myriad factions WITHIN the GOP if we're ever going to have a voice. Fortunately, there ARE major divisions within the Blount County GOP. I roughly categorize them as: Lincoln/Rockefeller Republicans (would be Democrats elsewhere), developer/big business Republicans, paranoid libertarian Republicans, Christian conservative Republicans, apolitical Republicans who vote that way (if at all) because that's what their families have always done. Take any significant issue facing the county and you will see major divisions within the GOP. As progressives it's important that we learn and perfect the art of "divide and conquer."
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