Dustin Simmonds knows all too well how tough things were for Hillary Clinton on Election Day in rural Morrison County, Minnesota, located about 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Simmonds, 25, was the county’s Democratic candidate for state representative. But even he couldn’t persuade his parents to vote for Clinton.
“It was a surprise for me that my father would support Trump,” said Simmonds, “My dad historically was a Democrat.”
A retiree and former member of the Electrical Workers Union, Simmonds’ father, Randy, supported Democrats like President Barack Obama and Rep. Rick Nolan in the past. Yet in 2016, he broke for Donald Trump and the Republicans, casting only one vote for a Democrat – his son.
Simmonds’ mother, Margaret, voted for Obama twice only to spurn the Democratic standard-bearer this year. A retired nurse and homemaker, she liked Bernie Sanders, so she wrote him in.
The Simmondses are two of the roughly 2,500 voters in Morrison who typically vote Democratic but who rejected Clinton. In the final tally, 73.7 percent of the county’s votes went for Trump, compared with 20.7 percent for Clinton, a whopping margin of 53 points.
Morrison County, Minnesota
The percentage of Morrison residents who voted for Trump — and his margin of victory there — were the highest in the state. The total number of votes won by Clinton was the lowest won by a Democratic presidential nominee in the county in 92 years.
Though Morrison was decidedly the most pro-Trump county in the state, high margins of victory for Trump were part of a pattern seen across Greater Minnesota that made the state competitive in a presidential election for the first time since 1984.
‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’
Little Falls, the county seat and home to a quarter of Morrison’s almost 33,000 residents, is akin to a working-class Stillwater. Both are riverside towns. But in place of Stillwater’s high-end boutiques and trendy restaurants, Little Falls’ historic district has thrift shops and bars with tap beers at $2.50 a pint.
The area was once an important cog in the state’s logging and paper industries, then a hub for boat manufacturers. But the shuttering of the mills and the boat factories over the past two decades has left it without a clear economic identity.
In January 2009, as Barack Obama was taking office for his first term as president, unemployment peaked in Morrison at nearly 14 percent.
Not quite eight years later, as voters readied to cast their ballots in a new presidential election, unemployment in Morrison had dropped to almost 4 percent. But in spite of marked statistical improvement under Obama, many voters weren’t impressed.
“We’ve got huge underemployment,” said state Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, borrowing a favorite qualifier from his party’s leader.
For Kresha, who won re-election to a fourth term over Simmonds, the primary reason for Trump’s resounding victory is “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The unemployment numbers aren’t reflective of the economic situation in which many residents are mired. Many of the jobs that are available are part time or don’t offer the kind of pay or benefits that workers enjoyed in the past.
Debora Boelz, president of the Little Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, sees things a little differently. According to her, many local businesses are struggling to find employees. She cites the example of a local manufacturer, Airborn, which has advertised job openings in locations as far away as Chicago.
“These are $60,000- to $75,000-a-year jobs,” said Boelz.
To Boelz, the problem is not one of a lack of jobs, but of a lack of people willing and able to fill open positions. Too many people prefer part-time positions that allow them to maintain their eligibility for government benefits, she said, while others need training that would qualify them for positions such as those that were available at Airborn.
‘Obamacare, it sucks’
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to as Obamacare, is another issue that has sharply divided the community.
On one side are people who have seen their insurance premiums spike to unaffordable levels. On the other side are people whose friends or family members would be unable to obtain insurance were it not for the provision in the law that requires insurers to provide coverage to all regardless of pre-existing conditions.
At the West Side Bar in Little Falls, a debate between Wayne and Karen Hansmen and Caroline Randell, a spry woman with an old-fashioned perm, was emblematic of the split.
For Randell, 85, the issue is a matter of simple economics.
“Obamacare, it sucks,” she said. Her own health insurance premium has gone up $21 a month, she explained, but her nephew’s has climbed even higher: $800 a month — and with a $10,000 deductible.
“How is he going to pay that?” she asked.
The Hansmens, retirees who visit the bar for the coffee and conversation, know how important the ACA has been to members of their family.
“Our daughter-in-law has Crohn’s disease. She’s uninsurable,” said Karen, adding that her husband’s nephew’s wife has been fighting cancer for 10 years, making her uninsurable as well.
According to Boelz, who co-owns the West Side Bar with her husband Jeff Tschida, “There are people like my husband and I who are self-employed. … We were part of the 6 to 7 percent that got the increase bump. So, literally, my whole salary goes to pay for health insurance. And unfortunately that’s not unusual. It seems to be more of the norm here.”
“I was getting six to eight calls a week of people seeing 30 to 40 percent increases on their health insurance,” said Kresha. He believes that although no more than 7 percent of people statewide purchase their health insurance on the individual market, it’s a higher percentage in Morrison due to a larger amount of people who are self-employed.
What the ACA has achieved beyond a doubt is that, in the eyes of many voters, it shifted blame for rising health care costs from private health insurers to the government, regardless of who or what is actually responsible.
‘Not a woman’s job’
Roman Witucki, 73, and Cathy Adamek, 68, two self-described members of the Democratic “old guard,” believe that gender played a role in Clinton’s lackluster showing.
“People I talked to, Democrats, would never vote for [Clinton] because she’s a woman,” said Witucki. For him, Clinton’s gender was the “main factor in Morrison County.”
Adamek recalled overhearing a conversation in the parking lot of a grocery store in town in which two women were saying that the presidency was “not a woman’s job.”
Several residents recounted similar conversations with family and neighbors in the county.
Not surprisingly, no one that MinnPost spoke with admitted to being motivated by Clinton’s gender to vote against her. It is noteworthy, however, that no woman currently serves in elected office in Little Falls higher than the school board.
Something that all agreed upon was that Morrison is a socially conservative county.
In the late 1800s, the area was heavily settled by German, Polish and French-Canadian Catholics. Today, the local diocese, with a convent, several schools and towering steeples across the county, maintains a dominating and outspoken presence. Priests are known to warn against voting for a pro-choice candidate from the pulpit.
Overall, Morrison’s graying electorate is more concerned about abortion and gun rights than issues championed by the national Democratic Party, such as equality for the LGBT community or people of color. “We’re still a very socially conservative community that doesn’t agree with New York values,” said Kresha.
At the main grocery store in Little Falls, the periodical rack holds 37 magazines dedicated to guns or hunting. Not one is dedicated to current events.
An early October surprise
As Trump was ramping up his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric in an effort to win Republican primaries, the first Somali-American families moved into Little Falls, enrolling seven children in the local schools.
With over 97 percent of residents identifying as white in the county, and most of those as Christian, the arrival of black, Muslim families raised more than a few eyebrows.
Rumors started flowing almost immediately about an oncoming deluge of over a thousand refugees, including one that claimed a new housing development under construction was destined to house all the newcomers.
Adamek, who aside from being a Democratic activist is a retired teacher and current school board member, said the rumors became so vitriolic that “we had people coming to the superintendent’s office demanding to see the prayer room.”
But there was no prayer room.
Eventually, the superintendent had to go on the local radio station to quell the unrest. Not all were convinced.
With a major party candidate stoking fears about Muslims, and groups like the Central Minnesota Tea Party hosting anti-Muslim speakers locally, it was akin to swimming against the current.
On Aug. 7, two adult, white males allegedly showed up at the residence of one of the Somali-American families and told a woman living there that if her family didn’t leave town, the men were going to burn down the house.
Although a police report was filed, no arrests have been made. According to the Little Falls police department, the report was forwarded to the FBI for investigation as a possible hate crime.
Then, on Sept. 17, Dahir Adan, a Somali-American, attacked shoppers at the Crossroads Center mall in St. Cloud, a short drive from Morrison’s southern border. If some in the community were on the fence about whether Muslims posed a security threat, that incident was likely a tipping point.
“It definitely scared a lot of people,” said Simmonds. “There were people from Little Falls who were there at the time.”
No doubt the incident played right into Trump’s hand, and delivered an unwelcome early-October surprise for Clinton at a local level.
On the stone façade of the American National Bank along the town’s main avenue, shadows of the word German can faintly be made out to the left of another word, American. The name was changed during World War I when being German became unpopular, an irony not lost on many in the community.
‘What have you got to lose?’
When making his case for the presidency to African-American voters, Trump notoriously quipped, “What have you got to lose?”
Among his intended audience, Trump’s message fell largely upon deaf ears. But for white, working-class voters who have been struggling since the Great Recession or before, it resonated.
Greg Zylka, mayor of Little Falls, said that he spoke with many Trump supporters who weren’t enthusiastic about their candidate, but who “just figured, what the heck. It’s four years. Let’s try something new.”
Indeed, residents who were effusive in their support for Trump seemed few and far between when MinnPost visited. On the other hand, those who were passionate about their distaste for Clinton were bountiful.
Rep. Kresha concurred. “[Voters] disliked Hillary more than they thought Trump would fix things,” he said. “People just wanted a change.”
The lesson of 1924
The last time a Democratic presidential nominee suffered such a crushing defeat in Morrison, the year was 1924, and the unlucky candidate was John W. Davis. A former congressman, ambassador and solicitor general from West Virginia, Davis secured the requisite two-thirds majority vote on ballot 103 after the withdrawal of the two frontrunners.
Robert M. La Follette Sr., a Republican senator from Wisconsin, was disenchanted with what he saw in the two major party nominees. For him, both candidates were conservatives with similar platforms in favor of limited government and less regulation. So he entered the race as the presidential nominee for the Progressive Party, a coalition of liberal Democrats and Republicans.
La Follette Sr. ran on a platform that was anti-war. He also called for the nationalization of railroads and utilities, the regulation of corporations, stronger labor laws, and increased protection of civil liberties. He won Morrison by a margin of almost six points over Coolidge, who coasted to victory nationally thanks to a chasm between conservative and liberal Democrats.
The parallels between the 1924 election and 2016 are clear. Whereas Sanders was viewed by many of Morrison’s voters as a modern-day La Follette Sr., Clinton was seen as a corporate Democrat, not a champion of the working class.
Eric Smith, 38, who voted for Trump after voting for Obama twice said, “I always think of the Democrats as the people that think about the little guys, the small town workers, and that’s why I usually vote Democrat because they think about the small business owners. Not so much lately.”
Smith’s friend Sean Andersen, 45, a Republican, summed up the sentiment shared across party lines in Morrison. “Bernie Sanders would have been a game changer, had he beat Clinton,” he said. “… I think there would be a Democrat in the White House.”
A self-proclaimed “Second Amendment kind of guy,” Andersen added that although he wouldn’t have voted for Sanders, “I wouldn’t have been bummed out about” the Vermont senator reaching the White House, either.