There aren’t many places in deep red Idaho where you’re likely to hear the kind of proud introduction Gini Ballou offered up not long after we met.
“I’m Gini Ballou,” she said. “My mother stopped to vote for John F. Kennedy on her way to the hospital to have me. And the greatest gift I ever got for my birthday was the ’08 election, when I was given President Obama on my birthday.”
Ballou is a mother of four, a bartender, an entrepreneur, and – last but not least — chair of the Blaine County Democrats. Last week, as the vice-presidential debate came to a close, she and the rest of the small group that had gathered for a watch party at county Democratic headquarters pulled their chairs into a circle. They were fired up and ready for discussion.
“It’s the hypocrisy of the whole abortion question!” registered nurse Patti Dorr exclaimed, sounding exasperated.
Dorr moved to Hailey from Nevada almost 25 years ago. She used to vote Republican, but George W. Bush changed that.
“For them to say that they don’t want government taking care of the food, or the water, but, by golly, they want the government to tell you if you’re to reproduce or not – they’re hypocrites!” she continued.
That hottest of hot-button issues may have drawn the sharpest words, but Blaine County Democrats have a lot on their minds: education, Social Security, health care, climate change, poverty. “Feed the hungry, heal the sick,” one person declared. Others nodded. They know their opinions are a world apart from those held by many Idahoans – but so be it, they said.
“It was a point of pride when the national map was published, and there was a little blue Blaine County surrounded by a red sea of regional opposites!” exclaimed Ben Schepps.
He was talking about a map showing how counties voted in 2008. In the middle of Idaho sits Blaine County, true blue. “I loved that map!” Dorr said. “It was in USA Today the day after the election!” She let out a delighted laugh.
Voters like Dorr and Schepp and Ballou are in Blaine County’s Democratic majority, but they admit that local Republicans are more organized than they’ve been in years. That’s thanks in part to one woman: Suzan Stommel.
She and her husband run an equipment financing business in Ketchum. Right now, their office is partly given over to the election. Stacks of Romney-Ryan signs lean against walls. There are bumper stickers for sale by the front door. Stommel is a co-founder and past-president of Blaine County Republican Women. “So, what does Blaine County Republicanism look like?” I ask.
She thinks it over. “We have very conservative Republicans here, and then we have some more socially liberal Republicans,” she says.
She puts herself in the first category: very conservative.
“Right now people are being groomed to believe that government can just take care of them,” she says.
Stommel’s politics inform her views on all kinds of issues, but for her, this point is key. “We’re Americans. We are tough. You know?” she asks. “There’s got to be a swing the other way. And right now it’s swinging way too far to the entitlement mentality.”
Blaine County’s Democratic and Republican faithful have no trouble speaking their minds, but the view from southern Blaine County, past Picabo Hill, is a little different. There, Vonnie Olsen stands in her perfectly preserved 1950s kitchen, washing dishes and looking out the window to admire an early fall morning.
“I can look outside and still see up Wood River and the quakies as they turn color,” she says. “I enjoy this every single day.”
Olsen is a city council member in Carey, population 600. She’s lived here for almost 50 years.
“People can tell you that for as long as they can remember, we’ve been the ugly stepchild,” Olsen explains, smiling a little at the characterization. “The upper end of the county has been very, very liberal, and this side has been very conservative. But, you know, I truly believe that there is a little of everything in all of Blaine County,” she says.
Olsen doesn’t like to talk about her politics, but she will say she’s decided to vote for Romney. She believes government spending has to be contained. But she’s also worried about the country’s deep partisan divides.
“Politics can get in the way of progress,” she says. “And I think that’s happened so much! People get so involved in wanting to be right wing, left wing – they forget that it’s all people! And that’s what’s happened with our Congress. We can’t get anything done, because we’re in such a stalemate.”
Here in Blaine County, Olsen says, things get done when people do their best to overlook political differences and work toward common goals. If only it could be as simple in Washington, she says.