The reddest place in America

There may be no spot in the U.S. more Republican than Madison County, Idaho. But even in this overwhelmingly white, Mormon enclave, the doubts are creeping in.

Published October 24, 2006 12:51PM (EDT)

Billboards outside the apartment buildings advertise "Approved housing for young ladies." A sign on the door to the student union thanks you for "obeying the dress and grooming standards." The local multiplex shows only family-friendly fare. And when you ask if you might have a beer with your burger at a restaurant next to the movie theater, the hostess looks puzzled, thinks for a bit and suggests that there may be a place way on the other side of town where a guy could get such a thing.

You've heard of Jesusland, but Rexburg, Idaho, is something more. It's not just a small town in rural Eastern Idaho. It's a small town in rural Eastern Idaho completely dominated by a fast-growing Mormon college, Brigham Young University-Idaho. Through this conservative convergence, Rexburg and surrounding Madison County may well be the rosiest place in all of red America. Need numbers to prove it? In the 2004 presidential election, 93 percent of Madison County's votes went to George W. Bush or minor-party conservative candidates -- arguably the reddest result of any county in the entire country.

Opinion polls show that a blue wave may be rolling across the country now, but it would have to become a flood of biblical proportions before it could make a meaningful difference in this county of 31,000. In November, Republican C.L. "Butch" Otter will probably win Idaho's governor's race easily, and a recent poll put the four-term Republican who represents Madison County in the U.S. House up 42 points over his latest Democratic challenger. But there is a potentially competitive race going on next door in Idaho's other congressional district, where a Democrat might win the seat for the first time since 1992. And even here in Madison County, people are starting to think a little differently about the GOP.

Rexburg Mayor Shawn Larsen, a Mormon and a Republican who once worked for South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, admits he wouldn't vote for George W. Bush if he were on the ballot again next month. The war in Iraq is part of it. "Even as we juggle the justification," Larsen laments, "the everyday reality is that we are losing men and women and we don't seem to be progressing toward that ultimate." But Larsen is also concerned about the way the Bush administration has treated rural America. "Some of the policies that have been put forth by the president have hurt a small town like Rexburg," he says. "Whether it's dealing with community development block programs, issues dealing with housing, those types of policies -- when you're a small community, those are important."

The mayor checks himself. He wants to make it clear that he's not speaking for everyone in his city. He says he's sure that a majority of Rexburg's residents still support the president.

You hear that a lot in Madison County. Even residents who express concerns about the direction of the Republican Party seem pretty certain their fellow citizens are still on board. Tom Kennelly, a 74-year-old retired mortgage banker, says that although he voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, he wouldn't do it again unless the president "literally puts the lid on the Mexicans coming across the border" and announces a plan to keep a permanent U.S. military base in Iraq. He makes his views known in letters to the editor of the local newspaper. When he's out talking with his friends, however, he doesn't "hear dissension around Bush." In Madison County, he claims, "It's hard to find a spot that isn't red."

Why is that true? More specifically, why is it still true, given the collapse of support for the Bush administration and the GOP Congress nationwide? "Republicans are afraid to admit that they're wrong," Kennelly explains. "They just can't admit it when they do a stupid thing." It's also an Idaho thing, he adds. "If something's wrong, just pretend you don't even know about it: 'Let these things go on by. Don't want to get my nose into other people's business.'"

You get a glimpse of that driving around Madison County. Pass through Nebraska or Kansas and you'll see a succession of bloody billboards equating abortion with murder. Around the country, "W '04" bumper stickers may be growing scarce, but plenty of cars still sport those multicolored ribbons urging support for the troops. It's not like that here. In a couple of days in Rexburg, I didn't see a lot of houses flying American flags, and I didn't see a single "Support Our Troops" sticker. I asked the mayor if maybe people here don't feel the need to show off their views because it doesn't occur to them that any of their neighbors might have different ones. "I think that's probably an accurate statement," he replied.

It's not that the residents of Madison County aren't political. You don't get such an overwhelming Republican majority by accident. But when the results are always preordained, there's not a lot of point in making a fuss. A local newspaper editor says the only real political dust-up of late came when one Republican challenged another for a seat on the local county commission.

And perhaps the results are preordained because of the monolithic influence of the Church of Latter Day Saints. As BYU-I English professor Dawn Anderson tells me, it's important to understand that most voters in Madison County are Mormons, and that "everything of a political nature" has to be understood in that context.

"The climate surrounding faithful membership in this organization is not always conducive to challenging authority," she says. "People here are reluctant to openly criticize the president and his administration, even if they privately disapprove of his job." And many of them don't disapprove, even privately. "After 20 years of teaching Mormon students, I've learned that the majority of them have little knowledge of issues outside the Republican platform. They only know that Democrats are lesbian baby-killers."

Maybe folks in Madison don't know more about Democrats because they don't know many Democrats at all. When I go looking for the local Democratic Party in Madison County, I hit a dead end because the woman who ran it has moved away to Hawaii. The closest substitute seems to be the group Anderson advises, the College Democrats at BYU-Idaho, so I make my way to campus in hopes of learning more.

At this booming, bucolic un-Berkeley, female students wear shapeless dresses, high-waisted pants and T-shirts under their tank tops in order to comply with BYU-I's dress and grooming standards: A coed's clothing must "reflect modesty and femininity becoming a Latter-day Saint woman." Forget fraternity keg parties; you can't even buy a caffeinated soda at the student union, and the pop music selection in the bookstore features CDs from Neil Diamond. Unless they're married -- and a lot of them are -- students here are required to live in "approved housing" that provides for the "appropriate separation of single male and female students." In a column in the student newspaper, a young female student suggests that the best way to attract men is to make sure that you've always got a plate of brownies ready to share.

When I arrive at Dawn Anderson's office, she closes the door behind me before we sit down to talk. She's a Mormon and a Democrat, and she's plainly torn about living in Madison County. She says the political homogeneity can be isolating and depressing and sometimes a little scary. She remembers the time when a group of classmates followed her third-grader home, shouting out "baby-killer" all along the way. She took it up with the teacher, who didn't seem to mind.

And yet, Anderson says, she tries to remind herself that the conservative lifestyle that bothers her so much also makes Madison County "a safe community to raise kids -- low crime rates, very little problem with gangs, things like that. We have high graduation rates, high literacy rates, clean streets, and the stores still close on Sundays."

That's the warm and fuzzy Mayberry RFD version of Madison County. One of Anderson's BYU-I colleagues, a conservative professor of humanities named Rick Davis, offers a different sort of testament to the appeal of the area and the politics of its residents. Davis has lived in a lot of different places, he says, and he knows that people are different all over. Even Mormons are different. Davis contrasts his neighbors with Massachusetts Gov. and potential GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Romney is a "Boston Mormon," notes Davis, not to be confused with "Rexburg Mormons," who, he says, are "so red that you just bleed."

Davis is definitely a Rexburg Mormon. I ask him about his thoughts on George W. Bush, and he launches into an explanation about how much worse off we'd all be if Al Gore had moved into the White House six years ago. "Oh, heaven help us," he says. "No leadership, zero, which is the way Clinton was, too." Clinton got away with a lot because the press is so liberal, Davis insists; Bush is "damned if he does and damned if he doesn't" because people just don't understand that we could all be at the mercy of nuclear-armed terrorists if the United States doesn't prevail in Iraq.

People in Madison County? They get it, Davis says. He's been around, after all, and he's come to understand that "anything that's cosmopolitan is liberal, and anything that's small is conservative." But why is Madison County so overwhelmingly conservative? "There's more Mormons here, and they're better educated," he says. "We have a very high education level in this town, a very high income level in this town. Now, that equates with being conservatives. We're fiscally aware of where the money comes from, and that it doesn't grow on the great tree in Washington. We don't have any welfare state in this area at all. We dont have blacks in this area to speak of. We've had them, and they've come and gone. Not to say they were driven out; they've just felt uncomfortable because there aren't enough of them -- like you and me moving to Montgomery, Alabama."

Davis may overestimate Madison County's standing on the income and education fronts. According to 2003 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the county's median income is substantially lower than the median for Idaho or for the nation as a whole. Its educational accomplishments are pretty average: 24.4 percent of the county's adult residents have at least a bachelor's degree -- a number that's exactly equal to the national one. As for Madison County's racial breakdown, Davis is pretty much spot-on. According to the Census Bureau, 97.7 percent of the county's residents are white; just .3 percent, or fewer than 100 of them, are black. That may explain a lot about the county's political proclivities. The residents of Utah's Salt Lake County voted for Bush in 2004, too, but the relative religious and ethnic diversity there -- whites comprise "only" 92 percent of Salt Lake County's population -- made the Bush-Kerry outcome far less lopsided than it was in Madison County.

Could things change here? Demographically speaking, probably not, at least not anytime soon. Brigham Young-Idaho is growing fast, and more and more LDS families are following their kids to Rexburg. If anything, Madison County is likely to get less diverse, not more. But politically? Things do change. This part of Idaho hasn't always been so bright red; a Democrat, albeit a conservative, pro-life one, represented the district for much of the 1980s and into the 1990s after his Republican predecessor was censured for ethics violations.

As Salon noted the other day, many moderate Republicans in Kansas, fed up with the direction of the GOP, have switched parties and are now running for election as Democrats. And over in Idaho's 1st Congressional District, the one that covers the western part of the state, Democrat Larry Grant is actually making a run of it this year. In part, that's because of the national turning of the tide, in part it's because of support from the Democratic netroots, and in part it's because the Republican in the race, state legislator Bill Sali, is one of the weaker GOP candidates on the ballot anywhere in America. Idaho's Republican House speaker once said of Sali: "That idiot is an idiot." Mike Simpson, the Republican who represents Madison County and the rest of Eastern Idaho in Congress, once threatened to throw Sali out of a window.

Simpson has endorsed Sali now, and it hasn't seemed to hurt Simpson in his own race. Neither, says Simpson's spokeswoman, has the Mark Foley scandal. The Foley case may have given Democrats "some momentum," Nikki Watts concedes, but she insists that people in Idaho realize that it's an "isolated" incident. "They're not willing to throw away their core values, values that are the same as the Republican Party's."

She's probably right about that. While there may be a lot of Madison County Republicans who are thinking twice about George W. Bush, I didn't come across any who seem ready to hand over the House to the Democrats. "People are content," Mayor Larsen told me. "They're busy taking care of everyday needs, making sure that they're making a good living, that their children are safe in their neighborhood. We live in a great community. Safe streets. Great schools. It's hard to say, 'Let's change course.' People feel like things are going well."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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