Of the places I traveled this fall during election season the small town of Coloma, in central Wisconsin, jumps to my mind. The reason it comes to mind is not due to the number of colored leaves that dotted the landscape, or any special diner or great pie to be found there. The small town in southwestern Waushara County in some ways mirrors a lot of small places around the Badger State. In fact, it could be any small town in America.
But the number of McCain/Palin lawn signs that I saw in this area during a fall trip seemed more concentrated and plentiful than other Republican small towns that I traveled this year. The reason for that is not so much a mystery given how past Republican elections have been waged, and how the GOP targeted the demographics in small towns like Coloma. But the future of the GOP, if they hope to win national elections, can no longer hinge so much in these types of small towns, or with these type of people that were used in the past for political purposes.
I think it important for my readers to know that I grew up in Hancock, just a short distance from Coloma. I took some umbrage about a decade ago when an author who lived in the area for many years, while penning a book about the famed naturalist Frances Hamerstrom, inferred that the region I grew up in was ‘the Appalachia of the north.’ I mention this, as I do not wish to conjure up similar images, or be connected with that type of thinking.
I know for a fact the people in Coloma who do not work for the federal government are indeed hard working people. They struggle to make ends meet on low paying jobs, pay their taxes, try to meet medical needs often without adequate insurance, and hope for a better day. Most do not have college degrees, and it has been my first-hand experience for decades that the lack of education has limited the ability of these people to understand what was happening to them based on their Republican voting patterns. They were being used for thier votes, but gaining nothing as a result.
During the past elections the GOP refused to make the government a force for good, and instead only looked out for the needs of the richest in the nation. That of course excluded Coloma, and thousands of other places like it. Cutting taxes for the top 1%, making it harder to create a living wage, being careless with the environment, and short-changing educational mandates for schools was standard operating practices by the Republicans. So if the GOP were not looking out for the real needs of those in Coloma, how would they attract those voters to cast a ballot for Republicans?
The winning strategy in 2000, and perfected by Karl Rove in 2004, was to run a splintered America type of election. Karl Rove hoped that less educated and lower income voters could be scared into voting along cultural lines. Using the ‘us versus them’ mentality, the GOP used issues like guns, abortion, and gay rights to divide the nation and needlessly scare voters into the Republican column. Years before Karl Rove, the GOP tried to shamelessly use the burning of the American flag as a wedge issue. And the wedge issues did work. In the past.
During my recent trip back to this area before the election I stopped for bottled water and some gasoline and started talking with a young person. I asked him, as was my custom before November 4th, if he was registered to vote. He said he was going to vote for Obama, as was his family. I then asked about all the lawn signs that showed such strong McCain support around Coloma. “They’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid’ he said while laughing. I asked him to amplify, and he told me that the area was alive with anti-abortion and anti-gay sentiment, though the ways to pay for his college loans were the top focus for him and his family. I asked him why the culture issues were not his concern, and without missing a beat he said, “if you do not want an abortion, don’t have one”. He added that he had gay friends in college, and it was no big deal. After a minute more of talking he concluded that the government had no right to interfere in the personal lives of the citizenry. College education had paid off for this young man.
He told me that in years past his folks had voted Republican, but what happened to the country over the past few years made them change their mind.
After Waushara County voted for Obama this week, where does the GOP go to win elections? The attempt to divide America’s small towns from the rest of America is no longer a working option for the Republicans. Sarah Palin tried to do that, and it was nauseating for anyone with an IQ higher than my shoe size to witness. More and more voters are professionals that live in suburbs. They may have fiscal conservative leanings, but also want to insure that abortion remains legal, and that their gay neighbors are treated with respect. The cultural division that the GOP used in places like Coloma over the years proved to not work this election. Thank God! No longer can the GOP hope that playing the race card, or the gay card, or the abortion card in small towns will be enough to win national races.
We can be happy as a nation that the broader world of Hispanics and urban professionals, along with their needs, will be taken into consideration if the GOP wants power again.
One thing will be clear in the months to come if the new and improved GOP is born. This will not be your dad’s GOP anymore…..if they want to win. It will need to be improved and updated to again capture the young man at the gas station that was not concerned about abortion or fearful of gays. He wanted to know how to pay for his college loans.
Remaking the Republican Party that downplays a reliance on those who can be swayed by the culture wars will be a good thing for America.