ELKO — During the presidential campaign three years ago, Democrats in this northeastern Nevada town worried that their cars would be vandalized if they put Kerry For President stickers on their bumpers, according to then-county party leader Dorothy North.
What a difference three years can make.
On Sunday, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke before a packed house at the Elko Convention Center. Obama, the U.S. senator from Illinois, had opened an Elko campaign office last month.
He wasn’t even the first Democratic presidential candidate to show up in Nevada’s cowboy country. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had an audience of about 160 for his July 13 campaign appearance in Elko, according to the Elko Daily Free Press. Richardson was the first Democratic presidential candidate to visit Elko in 50 years.
North is confident that other Democratic contenders for the White House, including Hillary Clinton, will make campaign appearances here in the months leading up to the party’s presidential caucus Jan. 19.
"I think there is a real feeling that in order to win Nevada they have to pull a lot of voters from this section of the state," she said. "More people are open to being Democrats. They are looking for a change of direction in this country. The Republicans are just a bunch of white guys."
In Carson City in May, Obama expressed confidence he could pick up a lot of votes in rural Nevada.
"One of the reasons I’m a U.S. senator is that I got strong support from places like southern Illinois where it’s about as rural and Southern as you can get," Obama told the Associated Press. "These are areas back in my home state that are pro-gun, very religious and with low minority populations."
The key to winning their support, Obama added, was showing respect for their views and taking time to talk with them.
"If you care about the things they care about, then you can do well, regardless of what your background is," he said.
That may be his hope, but none of the 15 locals who spoke to the Review-Journal Saturday in Elko parks and at the community swimming pool was open to backing Obama.
"There may be a few here who will support him, but not many," said 17-year-old Daniel Zumwalt who will be old enough to vote for the country’s next president in 2008. "This is a town of rednecks."
Zumwalt doesn’t consider "rednecks" to be derogatory; it is, rather, an apt nickname for hard-working ranchers and miners who swear by the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms and believe the best government is government that intervenes the least in their lives.
Zumwalt, who wore a "Drunk Cowgirls Dig Me" T-shirt and plans to attend college next year, added that he and his fellow Elko residents may be rural rednecks, but they are interested in politics and don’t like what they see in Obama.
His sentiments were shared by others in the park.
"The Democrats are the party that takes my money and gives it to someone else," said Marty Martinez during a baby shower that drew more than 20 people to the park. "They will get a lot of votes from voters who they promise to give something. But it is our money they are spending."
State statistics show the average income of Elko County families in 2004 was $52,000, or $5,000 above the state average and $7,000 more than the typical Clark County family.
Of Elko County’s 47,000 residents, fewer than 1 percent is African-American. Hispanics make up 21 percent of the population, and American Indians 1 percent. The remainder, 73 percent, is white.
The percentage of eligible voters registered as Republicans in Elko County has dropped during the Bush years. The GOP no longer has a more than 2-1 advantage over Democrats, but the region remains far from its political roots.
Historically this was the county of Democratic state senators like Norm Glaser, one of the founders of the Sagebrush Rebellion movement that aimed to take control of public lands away from the federal government, and Snowy Monroe, an Elko newspaperman turned politician.
Glaser, who was a state lawmaker from 1960 to 1984, and Monroe, who likewise spent 24 years in the Legislature, were committee chairmen and held leadership posts during the decades when state government was dominated by rural Nevada Democrats.
Elko County’s Grant Sawyer was governor from 1958 to 1967 before moving to Las Vegas and becoming one of the state’s leading lawyers.
In the 1970s, Democrats held a nearly 2-1 party registration advantage over Republicans in Elko County. These days, the Republicans hold a similar advantage.
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, said he was surprised that Obama would venture into what must seem like enemy territory.
"It was a bold move and that is what his campaign is all about," Herzik said. "It was a wise decision. Now, the Republicans will come too."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has announced he will make a campaign stop in Elko on Aug. 13.
Neither Herzik nor North expects the Democratic standard bearer to come close to winning Elko County in the November 2008 general election. But North remembers how Harry Reid edged John Ensign by just 428 votes in the 1998 Senate election, so she figures a few hundred voters could determine which party’s candidate takes the state’s five electoral votes.
President Bush got them last time around.
Carolyn McKenzie took her three daughters to see Bush when he landed in Elko to stump for congressional candidate Dean Heller just before last November’s election.
"I took them out of school so they could see him. We got pictures for our scrapbook. I never thought I would see a president in Elko in my life," McKenzie said.
She doesn’t understand why Obama and Richardson are spending time in such a devoutly Republican area.
"Obama is real personable, but I don’t know about voting for him," she said.
Rich and Betty Eisener, Chicago residents who were in Elko to visit their son and grandchildren, told whomever would listen outside the Elko pool that the Obama you see is not the Obama you will get.
"He makes a great appearance. Then he suddenly says these crazy things," Rich Eisener said, citing as an example the comment Obama made last week about how he might invade Pakistan to go after terrorists if he becomes president.
Obama can be charming, but he has failed to produce anything meritorious for Illinois residents, Eisener said.
"He is great when the cameras are on and a horse’s ass when they are off," he said.