After four years, Trump county in Georgia faces another decision

200918-Homer-James Luthi stands for the National Anthem before the beginning of the Banks County vs. East Jackson high school football game on Friday night Sept. 18, 2020 in Homer, Ga. Luthi, whose son is the drum major for the Banks County High School band, said he voted for Donald Trump four years ago and this year he is “the only option.” Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Banks County voted 90% for Republican candidate in 2016

Under the Friday night football lights in rural Homer, Ga., locals recently gathered for an approximation of normalcy in the midst of topsy-turvy times for the nation.

Several Banks County High School varsity players ran in waving big American flags. The marching band performed tunes from Disney movies, including The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” Most parents and kids in the outdoor stands weren’t wearing masks and some weren’t social distancing.

America’s ills are worrisome but feel distant in the Leopard Stadium stands and around this northeast Georgia county off I-85. Four years of national turmoil don’t appear to have shifted political allegiances after residents went extra big for Donald Trump last time around.

The U.S. is in the midst of a pandemic that the president said he played down to avoid panicking people. The nation’s once-booming economy is struggling. Racial injustice protests and violence have unsettled the country. The president has been mired in nearly non-stop controversies.

Divisiveness among Americans is “probably worse now than any time in my life,” said James Luthi, a 47-year-old assistant administrator for a poultry processor, as he waited for his son’s halftime performance with the school marching band.

Luthi’s support for Donald Trump hasn’t wavered. If anything, those bonds have been strengthened in this community dotted with cattle farms more than an hour’s drive northeast of downtown Atlanta and near the Commerce outlet stores.

All but one of more than 20 Banks County voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents — interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in this heavily Republican county said they intend to vote along the lines they did in 2016.

The interviews were conducted in September, before the first presidential debate and before President Trump tested positive for the coronavirus.

Trump supporters here give the president credit for the previously roaring economy, not its downturn. They don’t criticize his coronavirus response and see many of the controversies that have embroiled him as creations of Democrats and a biased media, though several have criticisms of Trump, too. And they say he is the best available choice for protecting biblical values in their lives, regardless of his personal conduct.

Georgia’s biggest cities and suburbs favored Democrat Hillary Clinton to be president in 2016, and polls show they will likely support Joe Biden this year. But Trump won the state last time by hauling in voters from far-flung rural counties that have remained solidly conservative for years. Among the most committed was Banks County, where nine out of 10 votes went to the New York Republican.

Trump will need them and others in the countryside to win Georgia again this November. A September poll of voters conducted for the AJC showed Trump and Democrat Biden in a dead heat statewide.

One in 10 jobs in Banks County is in agriculture or forestry. The biggest local employers include poultry businesses, a textile company and retail operations. But spinoffs from metro Atlanta are coming closer. And more jobs are on the way. SK Innovation is building a sprawling electric vehicle battery plant in neighboring Jackson County where it promises to employ 2,600 people.

Compared with Georgians overall, Banks County residents have substantially lower per capita income, are far less likely to hold college degrees and are less racially diverse, with whites making up about 90% of its nearly 20,000 residents. A much bigger portion also lacks health insurance: more than one in five under the age of 65, according to federal figures. Meanwhile, the county government claims it has “the lowest taxes on Interstate 85.”

No Democrat presidential candidate has won the county in at least three decades. No Democrat has even qualified to run for a county-level seat in years. In Banks County, if a Republican wins the party primary for a local office, the general election is just a formality.

Relatively few Trump campaign signs — and none for Biden — were spotted recently along some of the county’s highways and back roads. Residents offer two explanations: Many locals keep politics to themselves and few people here need convincing to stick with the president.

The divisiveness of the nation “is not a reality for us here,” said Rissa Campbell, a paralegal walking at a county park. “We try to keep everybody lifted up.”

Campbell voted for Trump the last time around and intends to do so again, worried, she said, that were Democrats in power they would allow late-term abortions, scramble the nation’s health care system and raise taxes. But she said she wishes there were more than two main political parties to choose from and that Trump “needs to keep his mouth shut and stop antagonizing people.”

Homer -- The Banks County High School football team takes the field carrying American flags before the beginning of their September game against East Jefferson. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Luthi, the band dad who plans to vote again for Trump, praised the president’s administration for pulling more troops out of conflict, brokering peace deals in the Middle East and — most importantly — improving the economy before the pandemic struck. Locally, he said he noticed a jobs and economic spike between the Obama administration and the Trump presidency, “like someone flipped the switch."

Federal data shows the county’s unemployment rate fell from 4.4% as Barack Obama was leaving office to 2.8% in February under Trump, just before the virus took hold. In August, it was 3.3%, lower than the state’s 5.9% rate.

Not everyone in Banks County is following the path they took in the last presidential election. Jason Satterfield, a 30-year-old account manager for a food wholesale company, said he won’t vote for Trump again.

Wearing a “Georgia Boy” cap in the stands at the local football game, Satterfield said he can’t abide by the president’s moves that he thinks have hurt the nation’s unity and harmed people, starting with the separation of young children from parents who attempted to enter the nation illegally.

“The message is now very divisive as a whole for the American people,” said Satterfield, who was one of only five Black students in his 232-person high school graduating class.

But Luthi, like several other voters interviewed, blames media outlets for sharper divisions among Americans even as he described what he sees as the president baiting people who don’t agree with him. “A large portion of his strategy is to keep them off guard and upset,” he said.

“I want four more years of him because I’m scared of the things the Democratic Party wants to accomplish more than I dislike that aspect of his behavior,” added Luthi, citing concerns that Democrats will raise taxes, push for government-run health care and increase gun controls.

Randall Stapleton, a 55-year-old pipefitter, said he thinks the president cares about all Americans. He is critical of Obamacare because he said it caused employers to cut work hours for people in his family. Under Trump, the job market was better, he said, at least before the coronavirus struck.

200918-Homer-Randall Stapleton talks about his views on Donald Trump while watching the Banks County High School football team take on East Jefferson on Friday night Sept. 18, 2020 in Homer, Ga. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Beyond the economy, the biggest issue raised by local conservatives focused around what they describe as biblical values.

“Sanctity of life is the first thing I look for,” said Chase Rylee, a 31-year-old accountant who also serves as pastor at a local church he launched.

While he is troubled that the president lashes out at people, he said he concluded he’d focus on which candidate has policies that will protect his values. “I try to push aside what his values are and focus on what my values are.”

Rylee, who grew up on a local poultry farm that’s been in his family nearly a century, said he recently participated in a local gathering supporting civil rights and is sympathetic to concerns about injustice.

Banks County isn’t immune to racial controversy. In 2017, a local judge found that an Atlanta Hawks player was a target of racial profiling when a county deputy pulled him over for a traffic stop that resulted in drug seizures from a rented SUV. The local district attorney wrote that “randomness or coincidence” could not explain the overwhelming number of minorities being stopped by the deputy, who was later dismissed from the force.

Longtime Democrats in the county said they intend to vote for a Democrat again this campaign season. Auto technician Jimmy Beasley, who is 65 years old, said he feels less safe with Trump as president.

“He seems like he is throwing a little gas on the fire" with race relations, said Beasley, who is Black and served seven years in the Army. He also said he didn’t like Trump downplaying the danger of the pandemic early on.

Still, Debbie Paulk, a retired social worker and vice chair of the county’s Democratic Committee, isn’t expecting any surprises locally this upcoming election.

“I think it will be a landslide for Trump in Banks County,” she said.

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