Struck by the pro-Bush comments I’ve heard in Hinton and Morgantown, I head east toward the West Virginia exurbs of Washington, D.C. Maybe Kerry has a better shot here. Jefferson County, at the far end of the 2nd congressional district, forms the tip of the state’s eastern panhandle. It voted for the statewide winner in every year but 1988, when it went for Bush’s dad. It picked the national winner in the last five elections. In 2000, the county cast more than 14,000 ballots for president. Gore lost by 185.
The economy here is very different from Hinton’s or Morgantown’s. New houses are going up, but the buyers are coming out from Washington’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs in search of cheaper real estate. Defino Resendiz, who runs Grandma’s Diner in Charles Town, the county seat, says 40 percent of the people here are commuting to Washington or its inner suburbs. They’re exhausting the town’s resources—it has no high school—and driving up real estate prices, which sounded good to the locals until they realized that they couldn’t sell one house because they couldn’t afford another. Eric Olmstead and Derek Brandt, two regulars at the diner, fix cars at the dealership down the street. Zachary Morse, who’s lunching a few seats down the counter, drives a UPS truck. They all complain that you can’t make a decent enough wage here to keep up with the cost of living. People are being forced out and have nowhere to go.
It sounds tailor-made for Kerry’s message, but the culture here turns out to be as conservative as that of Morgantown or Hinton. Heading south from Veterans Memorial Highway, you pass Coast Guard Drive, a Veterans Affairs medical center, billboards urging prayer for our troops, and a house covered with a sheet welcoming home a staff sergeant from Iraq. On Charles Town’s main street, there’s a ministry on every block. At Grandma’s, I run into Billy Hearn, a pastor whose congregation meets up the street. Billy emphasizes the evil of abortion, which doesn’t surprise me. But Eric, a 29-year-old Democrat from Vermont who leaves before I talk to Billy, volunteers the same opinion.
Derek plans to vote for Bush, mostly because of the president’s religious convictions. Eric prefers Kerry but calls him a bloodless flip-flopper. Bush’s “views suck, but at least he has some passion behind them,” Eric scoffs. Eric says he could make more money on welfare than he does at his job, which offends his work ethic. He excoriates the “politically correct” assault on masculinity. “The world would be a better place if everybody was packing some heat,” he argues. If terrorists hijack a plane while he’s on board, he warns, “There’s gonna be some Muslim ass gettin’ trashed.” Zachary, the UPS driver, condemns ghetto culture and laments that self-reliance is vanishing with the family farm. He blames promiscuity on women and decries the prosecution of parents who use “the rod” to discipline their kids.
Eric, whose features look distinctly Latin-American, conveys no irony as he talks about trashing Muslim ass. Nor does Zachary—a plaintiff in the black farmers’ suit against discriminatory federal lending practices—as he lambastes the government for lending money to Indian immigrants who “own all the hotels.” Zachary doesn’t mind saying this in front of Defino, the diner’s immigrant owner, nor does Derek mind asking Iraq for a bit of imperial tribute. “If we just frickin’ conquered a country, I’m thinkin’ our oil prices should be comin’ down a little bit,” he grumbles.
To a Washington liberal, these sentiments sound like the final nail in Kerry’s coffin. But they aren’t. They’re Kerry’s opportunity, and he knows it. He has made outsourcing and unfair foreign trade practices the centerpiece of his trips to West Virginia. You don’t win this state as a Democrat by resisting its nationalism or its anti-welfare ethic. You win by channeling that nationalism and that ethic into economic issues. If you can’t run against Bush for killing Iraqis, you run against him for spending our money on them—and for cutting deals with the Saudis to keep our gas prices high. If you can’t run against Indians who buy American hotels, you run against companies that ship jobs to India.
You blame lost jobs and low wages on underhanded foreign competitors. You buy off the coal industry with subsidies. You promise more of the pork Sen. Byrd has brought home. You duck questions about abortion or gay rights. You flaunt your military service and paint the other guy as a draft dodger. You swear allegiance to the Second Amendment. If possible, you bring your hunting rifle, as Kerry has hinted he’ll do. The good news for Washington liberals is that Kerry can win West Virginia. The bad news is that he’ll have to run against everything they stand for.