A respectful hush falls over the living room of this large house just outside Walsenburg, Colorado. Members of the Huerfano County Republican Party have gathered here to celebrate President Donald Trump’s Inauguration, while a recording of the day’s events is projected on a tall wall. In the kitchen, a tiny jar of caviar sits among cheese platters and steaming crockpots on the granite countertop.
Debi Sporleder, the party’s chairwoman, bows her head and prays.
“Father, we just thank you for this day,” Sporleder says, her voice echoing down the long hall. “All of us just stand in awe of how you’ve worked in our America. We love you. We praise you. In the name of your son, Jesus – and bless this food – Amen.”
A chorus of “Amens” follows. Chairs scrape the floor as people rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. Though the mood of this mostly older crowd is quiet and far from jubilant, tonight is a celebration.
Bolstered by transplants and new recruits, a resurgent local Republican Party mounted a formidable opposition last year to the Democrats, who had for decades enjoyed wide support in this former coal town.
Local Republicans, led by Sporleder, mobilized voters, worked the phones, and manned Republican Party headquarters — the first in town in recent memory. Their efforts contributed to a surprising political about-face: Huerfano County voted red in the 2016 presidential election, departing from its long Democratic history to support Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of about 10 points. Whether the flip is a fluke or a harbinger of long-term change is more than just a political question for Huerfano County: It’s a reflection of the community’s past and, perhaps, its future.
In some ways, the story of Huerfano County mirrors national trends. As in other rural places, Trump’s rhetoric tapped into frustration with the slow pace of economic recovery in Walsenburg – at 3,000 people, the county’s biggest town – and appealed to people’s fear of law-breaking or welfare-dependent immigrants. But the county’s embrace of Trump is also due to fervent local organizing and the demographic changes that have quietly remade Huerfano County and dozens of Western communities over the past few decades. What began as a trickle of retirees and second-home-owners seeking cheap land has become a powerful force here, making the place more retirement destination than working-class haven, more drive-through gas stop than self-powering economic engine.
Although the county’s swing for Trump surprised many, the embers of this political transformation have been below the surface for decades, steadily burning like coal.
Phyllis Cordova grips a mug of coffee on the laminate counter in the café she has owned in downtown Walsenburg for four decades. A television news program prattles on about a pending snowstorm on this January morning, but inside the Alpine Rose Café, it’s warm, brightly lit and nearly empty. Just one person sits alone at a table in the back.
“I had a booming business when I started here,” Cordova says, as her son DJ refills her cup from behind the counter. “Now, all the old-timers are gone. These young people don’t patronize these kinds of restaurants. If they eat, it’s fast food.”
Cordova, a Democrat, is the daughter of a coal miner, and she talks wistfully about how life once was in her native Walsenburg. In 1940, 6,000 people lived in town, and another 10,000 in the surrounding county. Now, there are only 6,000 people in the entire county. Cordova counts off the car dealerships and bars that once lined the busy streets. People were miners or ranchers, or they drove to Pueblo, an hour away, to work in a steel mill. Jobs paid good wages and required just a high school degree.
Walsenburg has an important chapter in the labor history of the U.S. The town was incorporated in 1873. Later that decade, the first coal mine opened. As immigrants flooded the Eastern U.S. in the late 1800s, hundreds of them boarded trains headed west and landed here.
“They were the start of the middle class,” says Bob Butero, Western regional director for the United Mine Workers of America.
Labor leader Mary “Mother” Jones famously spent time in the Huerfano County jail after she tried to help striking miners in the early 1900s; local Democrats still re-enact her dramatic arrest at a dinner held in her honor each year. Steeped in the town’s collective memory is the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, which erupted when members of the Colorado National Guard opened fire on striking coal miners on the prairie outside Walsenburg. At least 19 people, including 11 children, died in the resulting chaos, and the daylong shootout ended with the strikers’ tent colony being burned to the ground.
For several generations, mine workers protested the horrific working conditions; GOP-leaning mine bosses fought back. The cycle bred a sense of contempt that still makes some old-timers cringe when they hear that their granddaughters are marrying Republicans. Since 1944, the county has voted for just two Republican presidents: Richard Nixon in 1972 and George W. Bush in 2004, by a margin of 45 votes. But machines replaced workers, demand for Huerfano County coal declined, and the mines left one by one; the last one closed around 1973. As coal left, much of what made Huerfano County blue left, too, setting off the first cracks in the Democratic machine and changing the culture of the county.
Despite her nostalgia, Cordova doesn’t mind the slow days at the Alpine Rose Café, she says. She’ll linger to chat with customers, or feed a family member who stops by after school. She keeps a table stocked with free clothes for those who need it. She’s been doing this so long, she says, that “if (customers) come, they come. If they don’t, they don’t.”
Retirees reshape politicsWalsenburg is a quiet place now, a grid of old houses stuck stubbornly to wind-swept land between Interstate 25 and the Spanish Peaks.
Like many small Western communities, Huerfano County has lost many of its kids and working-aged adults; young people tend to move away for jobs and college and not come back. Schools have consistently shrunk in the last decade. At a recent community meeting, in hopes of improving the county’s teacher turnover rate, the school district superintendent urged local businesses to offer incentives for local teachers – maybe coupons for pizza or a few free rounds of golf.
But retirees love Huerfano County. Though population overall has plummeted nearly 20 percent since 2000, the 65-and-older age group has grown by more than 500 people or 10 percent. One in three people in Huerfano County are baby boomers, compared to one in five nationally. Across the Mountain West, retirees are flocking to communities like Walsenburg, according to research from the Bozeman, Montana-based Headwaters Economics.
Retirees like Stanley Mann, the retired law professor and Trump supporter who hosted the inauguration dinner at the home he built on a hill outside town, find what they want in Huerfano County: cheap property taxes, a quiet lifestyle and mountain views.
In Huerfano County, retirees are making a new kind of economy, with caretaking as its primary industry; there are more jobs here in health care and social assistance than in any other sector except government. The city has embraced this shift in some ways, including changing zoning regulations to allow tiny homes in hopes of attracting retirees who want to live cheaply in 600 square feet or less.
Their arrival is also reshaping the politics. Today, there are more registered Republicans in Huerfano County than in any presidential election year for which data are available since 1968. Democrats still outnumber Republicans almost 2-to-1, but the gap is narrowing; there are three times as many registered Republicans now than there were in the late ’80s, and a third fewer Democrats. That statistic sneaked up on the town.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Carolyn Newman, a Democrat in her 80s, says of Trump’s win. Newman, a retired schoolteacher and mother of the local sheriff, moved to Walsenburg in 1957. To Newman, two things seemed different about this election: People were more opinionated and bitter, she says, and the local Republicans were more active than ever before.
Meet the organizerSporleder wraps her arms around her lanky 11-year-old grandson, Elijah.
“I need you to practice for a half hour,” Sporleder, 57, says in his ear. Elijah nods, knowing, as Sporleder does, that he hasn’t rehearsed enough for the next day’s clarinet lesson. The family’s terrier, Kody, trots around the living room, its walls adorned with multiple crosses.
Sporleder, a Kansas native with bright blue eyes and wavy graying hair, married into the Sporleder family, whose roots in Walsenburg go back four generations and include this tan stucco house a stone’s throw from downtown. She met her husband, Karl, at a gunsmithing school.
Sporleder never expected to be a mother again, not after raising kids of her own. But when her daughter ran into hard times, Sporleder didn’t think twice about taking in her grandson. Her days are split between her job as sales manager for the local newspaper, the tasks of motherhood and her newest pursuit, chairwoman of the Huerfano County Republican Party. Trump wasn’t Sporleder’s first choice. She preferred Ben Carson, Sporleder says. But she liked Trump’s opposition to undocumented immigrants and the Affordable Care Act. In the end, Sporleder’s decision to vote for Trump involved more of a moral calculus than the political kind. A Christian whose religion is a guiding factor in her life, she wanted a candidate with strong conservative values.
“I believe (Trump) was put in place because he sought after God,” Sporleder says. “And I believe Hillary was the exact opposite of that.”
Sporleder became a driving force behind Huerfano County’s unlikely support of Trump last year: a Republican Party more organized than ever before. She recruited volunteers to staff the campaign headquarters, whose storefront windows were plastered with signs for Trump and local Republican candidates. Tourists from as far away as California stopped in for a free hat or bumper sticker as they passed through town. Marcy Freeburg, a former local party secretary and Republican candidate for the Colorado House of Representatives, got hold of 100 Trump yard signs to give away at headquarters, first-come, first-served. Sporleder and others revived the Republicans’ sleepy Facebook page, posting daily updates on early voting turnout. The party’s social media messaging scourged Clinton as much as it hailed Trump: One photo on its Facebook page shows Freeburg wearing a Hillary Clinton mask and bright orange prison jumpsuit, in front of a “Make America Great Again” sign.
But all that organizing worked partly because the once-steady economic ground in Walsenburg had shifted underfoot. Trump’s grim picture of America – decaying infrastructure, failing schools, an economy that can’t create full-time, high-paying jobs – resembled Huerfano County enough that, despite Trump’s lack of a detailed plan, plenty of people in Huerfano County agreed with his arguments.
Where did votes come from?On Nov. 8, 2016, Sporleder cast her vote for Donald Trump, along with 1,882 other Huerfano County residents. The results demonstrate the extent to which the Democrats have lost ground here: Even if all 1,234 registered Huerfano County Republicans voted for Trump, about 600 Trump votes must have come from outside the party, from Independent or Democratic voters.
Trump’s margin of victory grew as voting populations got smaller: Nearby Las Animas and Conejos counties, like Huerfano, flipped from backing Obama in 2012 to voting for Trump last year. Exit polls show that rural voters across the country tended to vote Republican even more in 2016 than they did in 2012 and 2008.
Many local Democrats are now asking: Was the county’s support for Trump just a blip, or a sign of more lasting change? The shift from blue to red was far from unanimous. Huerfano County voters supported Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet by about 300 votes, for example, and they voted to increase the state’s minimum wage.
But registered Republicans are on the rise and are beginning to flex their muscle. Huerfano County voted for Scott Tipton, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House, and supported a Republican for state senator. Since 2012, two of the three Huerfano County commissioners have been Republicans. Both Max Vezzani, a descendent of Italian immigrant coal miners, and Ray Garcia, a fifth-generation Huerfano County resident, were re-elected last fall, and received more votes than before. Prior to Garcia’s election, he says, there hadn’t been a Republican commissioner in his district for 75 years.
Looking to the futureJust as Republicans, thrilled by their newfound political power, are working to sustain momentum, local Democrats are scrambling to find it. Local Democrat Mark Craddock says the Democrats are soul-searching. They also are studying the Tea Party’s strategy for effecting policy change, including bringing more people to city and county meetings, especially Independents, and increasing their social media activity.
Huerfano County Republicans, meanwhile, like what they see, despite the rocky progress on Trump’s health-care bill, the turmoil and turnover among White House leadership, and the investigation into Russian influence on the election.
“He’s doing exactly what he said he would do,” says Mann, who regularly hosts political and Christian gatherings in his 12,500-square-foot house outside Walsenburg. “I’m so distrustful of most politicians, usually. They say almost anything. At least this administration is doing something. Whether it’s too fast, or outside of already in-place procedures, I really don’t know.”
Sporleder isn’t discouraged, either, even though Trump has yet to make good on his campaign promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. “I believe he’s trying,” she says.
As for Trump’s ties to Russia? Sporleder says there’s nothing there. “I just trust that he will do the right thing,” she says.
Leah Todd is a freelance reporter living in Taos. She has covered education for The Seattle Times and Casper Star-Tribune. This article was first published by The High Country News.