Kentucky Politics

SANDY HOOK, Ky. On Election Day, Denvil Adkins went to the polls in Sandy Hook, the county seat in Elliott County to cast his vote in the presidential election. He wore a Trump 2020 face mask he had to turn inside-out because of rules against electioneering.

“I’m a registered Democrat,” explained Adkins, 71. “I voted for Donald J. Trump.”

Elliott County is one of 206 counties in the United States that voted for President Barack Obama twice before flipping red in 2016 for President Donald Trump.

Obama won Elliott County, fifty miles southwest of Ashland in Appalachian coal country, by 25 percentage points in 2008. He won it again in 2012, but by a much smaller margin.

Obama’s victories weren’t surprising. Democrats have won Elliott County in every presidential election since the county’s founding, in 1869. Not anymore. The Democratic spell was broken in 2016, when Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a whopping 44 percentage points.

That meant Elliott County made the largest swing from Obama to Trump of any county in the U.S.

Today, Elliott County — population 7,508 — is proudly Christian, overwhelmingly white, and struggling with poverty and opioid abuse.

Like so many of his neighbors, Adkins is a Democrat in part out of tradition born in the golden age of labor unions and in part out of civic need. Today most Elliott County officials run as Democrats, so voters register as Democrats to have a voice in local primaries. But Adkins supports the president because he’s opposed to abortions.

Today many Elliott County Democrats say they realize they’re more like Republicans.

On the side of a boutique shop in the county seat of Elliott County, Ky., a mural celebrates the town of Sandy Hook.

‘He’s for more godly things’

Like just about everyone he knows, Reggie Dickerson, a pipefitter and lifelong Elliott County resident, was raised a Democrat.

But he’s gotten involved in local Republican politics because he thinks Democrats have abandoned the little guy. Dickerson blames Obama for the decimation of the coal industry, which has squeezed eastern Kentucky.

“People here feel like the Democrat Party’s left them, they haven’t left the Democrat Party,” Dickerson told WFPL on Election Day outside the polling place at the Elliott County Courthouse.

He says the nail in the coffin was the Democratic Party’s embrace of same-sex marriage.

“Kentucky is in the Bible Belt of America,” Dickerson said. “But the county you’re standing in isn’t the finger or toe. It’s the heart of it.”

Many Elliott County residents pride themselves on their Christian faith, an identity they say compels them to support Trump.

They admit Trump isn’t a model Christian – but they back him anyway, because they say he’s better than the alternative.

“I’m not saying he’s a godly man, but he’s more for godly things in my opinion,” said Michael Cassell, a 28-year-old from Elliott County who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 after voting for Obama in 2012. Cassell thinks Christians are under attack in America, and he sees in Trump a protector of his faith community.

So does Alana Lewis. She’s 15 years old — too young to vote. But she waited over an hour in line with her cousin, who was voting at the courthouse in Sandy Hook.

Lewis would have voted for Trump if she could, and she says all of her friends support Trump, too. She admires Trump for sticking up for Christians.

“Our beliefs and morals here are a whole lot different than down in Louisville,” Lewis said. “Trump’s ways go more with our morals and values in life here.”

Kentucky was one of the first states called for Trump on Tuesday. Once again, the president carried Elliott — only the second time in 151 years that a Republican presidential candidate won the county. His margin of victory was even larger than in 2016.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden does still have some supporters in Elliott County. Auttie Brickey is an Elliott County resident in his 80s, and he cast his vote for Joe Biden before Election Day.

Still, he cruised by the voting line outside the Elliott County Courthouse on Election Day so he could witness democracy in action.

“I don’t know who’s going to win,” Brickey said. “But this country’s in trouble no matter who wins, pretty much.”

Graham Ambrose is an investigative reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. He is a Report for America corps member.