Officials in 4 Appalachian counties proud their residents supported Obama

FRANKFORT — Lonesome amidst a swath of Republican red on the political map of Kentucky are four Eastern Kentucky counties painted blue by President-elect Barack Obama.

Republican John McCain swept 112 of the Bluegrass State's 120 counties, but not the Appalachian counties of Elliott, Menifee, Wolfe and Rowan. Those four also voted Democratic in the 2004 presidential election, but so did seven other neighboring counties.

This time, the only Kentucky counties that voted for Obama besides those four were the two most populous, Jefferson and Fayette, and Henderson and Hancock in Western Kentucky.

Political leaders in the four Eastern Kentucky counties said the primary reasons for Obama's success in their area were his message of change and the prevalent dislike for outgoing Republican President George W. Bush.

Obama's race wasn't a factor for their mostly white constituents, they said.

In Elliott County, 61 percent of voters supported the first African-American to win the presidency. That compares to 70 percent who supported Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

The latest Census Bureau figures say the county has two blacks, but Democratic Judge-Executive David Blair said "a few more" have moved to the county in recent years, primarily to work at a state prison.

Blair said Obama's race wasn't "mentioned at all, not that much really.

"When it was, they would say he's biracial, that his mother was white."

Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton trounced Obama in Elliott County this spring, getting 90 percent of the vote. Still, contempt for the Bush administration was stronger than unease with Obama, Blair said.

"We have a strong Democratic Party here that does not think much of Bush and Dick Cheney and what they did to the economy," Blair said.

Elliott has the highest registration of Democrats in the state — 4,799 Democrats to 165 Republicans.

State House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said Obama's message of change "resonated with the folks of Elliott County."

Adkins said, "I know that he would be more welcome in Elliott County than Bush."

He thinks Obama would have carried more Appalachian counties if he had visited the area.

"Some people here thought they just didn't know him. I hope that changes and he comes and visits," Adkins said. "I think his message of change and concern is genuine."

Besides Elliott County, Obama won 51 percent of the vote in Menifee County, and 50 percent in Rowan and Wolfe counties.

Menifee County Judge-Executive Hershel Sexton, a Democrat, said the economy was the deciding factor in the presidential election in his county.

"My county decided that anything is better than nothing, and nothing is what we have," he said.

Even though there are only a handful of blacks in the county, Sexton said, most Menifee Countians didn't seem to pay much attention to race in the presidential contest.

"We have a fine group of forward-thinking people in the county and I think they set a lot of things aside and decided Obama was the best man for the job," he said.

Sexton acknowledged that some in the county were "bothered" by Obama's race. "Some of them didn't vote," he said.

Rowan County Judge-Executive Jim Nickell, a Democrat, said race was "a very little factor" in his county.

"People here looked at Obama for what he stood for as an individual, not as black or white."

Wolfe County Judge-Executive Raymond Hurst, also a Democrat, said Wolfe Countians are "fed up with the Bush administration."

"They want change, and that far outweighed any hesitations they might have had about Obama."

About a dozen blacks live in Wolfe County, Hurst said.

"I'm tickled that people in our county didn't look at the election as a racial thing."

Fayette and Jefferson counties, home to Lexington and Louisville, were the only two counties in Kentucky that voted for Obama in May's Democratic primary, which U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton won by a landslide.