The main crossroads in Appling features a few county government buildings, a rusted-out barn and a statue of a pioneering Baptist minister. There’s little to indicate that this area is a hotbed of conservative activism.
That’s exactly the conclusion drawn by CrowdPac, a political startup that culled the donations that residents in nearly 5,000 cities gave to federal and state-level candidates since 2002 and used the findings to analyze the nation’s most conservative and liberal towns.
And there was Appling, dubbed the nation’s third-most-conservative enclave, just behind two Texas towns and ahead of the likes of Cripple Creek, Colo., and Sumiton, Ala. (Some of the names on the liberal side of the ledger were more predictable, including Ithaca, N.Y., and Berkeley, Calif.).
To say Appling is actually a town is a misnomer. Named for the pioneering Appling family, the area lost its city charter in the 1990s but still serves as the official seat for Columbia County, a county of 140,000 next to Augusta.
Republicans in the county — where three out of every four residents are white — have a firm grip on the four-seat commission, and residents overwhelmingly backed Gov. Nathan Deal in 2014 and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
Still, residents are more likely to cite something else when asked about Appling’s Republican heritage.
“The ranking doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Becky May, who works near the town’s main drag. “Appling is steeped in tradition.”
May works at Kiokee Baptist Church, a sprawling congregation founded in 1772 that still holds the title as Georgia’s oldest continuing Baptist church. It’s one of about a dozen churches scattered in the area — a religious infrastructure that residents constantly cite.
“Our county is very conservative, and we’re in the rural part of it,” said Lloyd DeFoor, a real estate agent who has lived in the area for 42 years. “We’ve got strong churches and rural roots.”
Steve Hartman said he’s still amazed at how deep those roots run. A relative newcomer — he has been pastor of the Kiokee church for 16 years — he said many residents trace their heritage back hundreds of years.
“People here are very practical. They’re very family-oriented,” Hartman said. “And when they need help, the last place they look to is the government.”
It’s also an area largely untouched by presidential politics. Every major presidential candidate has visited metro Atlanta — many several times — but there have only been a few visits to northeast Georgia. Donors were most likely to support retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, but some of Appling’s most prominent residents are undecided.
“I haven’t made up my mind,” said Andy Pollard of the Pollard Lumber Co. “I haven’t even paid much attention. All the noise right now doesn’t matter until the votes are counted. Everything is going to change.”
For Democrats, building inroads into the area can be a lonely fight. The local party chairwoman, Deborah Fisher, admits she’s outnumbered. But there’s hope in the future, she said, thanks to a new get-out-the-vote campaign that aims to prove the CrowdPac analysis wrong.
“The Columbia County Democratic Party is strong,” she said.
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