Wyllinda Holmes, wife of 125th District Rep. Carl Holmes, reviews her presidential straw poll ballot Tuesday at the Seward County GOP meeting. Liberal’s Republicans selected Rick Perry as their choice in the first of five straw polls. L&T photo/Earl Watt
By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
The small Southwest Kansas town may be named ‘Liberal,’ but when it comes to politics, it is anything but.
The town got its name from its founder, Mr. S.S. Rogers, who gave away water to pioneers in the 1880s when it was a rare commodity on the High Plains. He became known as “that liberal fella,” and the name stuck.
But when ballots were cast in presidential elections, or almost any election for that matter, the people of Liberal might be some of the most conservative.
Liberal voters have not selected a Democrat for president for 75 years, dating back to the 1936 election when the city selected Franklin Roosevelt over Alf Landon. It was a twist of irony since Landon was the governor of Kansas.
Since then, however, it has been a Republican sweep. Any Democrat elected to the presidency has done so without the support of Liberal’s voters.
Currently, every local office that requires party affiliation is held by a Republican, from all five county commissioners to the register of deeds.
As one of the most conservative counties in the country, even with a city named ‘Liberal,’ it is a perfect testing ground for the upcoming presidential election.
During Tuesday’s meeting of the Seward County Republicans (the city of Liberal makes up 90 percent of the county’s population), a straw poll was conducted to gauge the field of candidates.
If the most consistently conservative city of Liberal had its way, Rick Perry would be the next president. He was followed by Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.
Two of the top three have yet to announce they are running.
Dee Malin, former Register of Deeds, said Liberal’s conservative trend runs deep.
“I married into homesteaders,” she said. “We learned how to stick to it, don’t quit and do it yourself. Government programs were unacceptable. We had a pioneering spirit, and neighbors would help each other. We did not need or want government.”
That pioneering spirit has remained even though Liberal has seen the ups and downs of American life for the past 125 years.
While agriculture is the community’s mainstay, the oil and gas industry came and went with booms and busts. Aircraft manufacturing and an army air base are also part of Liberal’s history.
Today, the leading employer is a beef packing plant with migrant workers making the bulk of the staff. Liberal’s Hispanic population has exploded over the past 20 years.
But the Republican-leaning voters still rule the ballot boxes. In the last election, the remaining Democrats in office were defeated by Republicans to make it a clean sweep.
Seward County Republican Chairman Reid Petty, who holds the post at the age of 25, said Kansas could have an increased role in the presidential primary this season.
“I have been informed that Kansas will matter for the first time in many years when it comes to the Republican Presidential primary season,” he said. “It appears to be a wide open race for the GOP nomination, and Seward County will be participating in the GOP caucus for the first time in a long time, as well.”
The straw poll consisted of 10 names and a spot for a write-in. The names were Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Hunstman, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
With such a strong Republican heritage, perhaps the strongest in the nation, Petty thought presidential candidates might want to make a stop to get the blessing of the ‘Liberal’ conservatives.
“I would encourage presidential candidates to come visit Liberal,” Petty said. “We are ranked one of the most conservative districts in the United States and have consistently voted Republican more than just about any other state. Our opinion on who the nominee is should matter.”
Petty also pointed out that while Iowa and New Hampshire are key early primary states, neither have been very supportive of the Republican presidential nominee. Iowa has voted Democrat in five of the past six presidential elections, and New Hampshire four of the last five.
Liberal’s Republicans will take a total of five straw polls between now and the 2012 election, this being the first.
Malin believed it was important to make sure the right candidate is chosen.
“In a lot of races, you can shake the candidates in a sack, pull one out, and not know the difference,” she said.
But that’s where the longstanding tradition of ‘Liberal’ conservatives can help determine the right person.
“We are terribly independent with a pioneering spirit,” she said. “It can’t be broken.”
75 years of GOP DOMINANCE
The last time Liberal’s voters selected a Democrat for president was 1936 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ironically, defeated Kansas Governor Alf Landon. The next two times that FDR ran, however, Liberal did not support the New Deal president, nor did they vote for another Democrat seeking the highest office in the land since.
When the rest of the nation selected Harry Truman, Liberal’s conservative voters went for Thomas E. Dewey, twice (1944 and 1948). John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, but Liberal voted for Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter won in 1976, but Liberal selected Gerald Ford.
The trend continued when Liberal’s voters selected George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole over Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and in 2008 Liberal’s voters supported John McCain by almost three to one over Barack Obama.