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Why Swift County swung Republican in 2016

BENSON -- Of the 19 Minnesota counties that swung Republican for this year's presidential election, none did so more drastically than Swift County, which has not voted Republican in a presidential race since Eisenhower in 1952. "Usually you put D...

Butch Berens, from right, Glen Rois, Jim Goff, Raymond Berens and Swede Berens and Dan Berens talk about the 2016 presidential election Monday at Sandy's Cafe in Benson. Briana Sanchez / Tribune
Butch Berens, from right, Glen Rois, Jim Goff, Raymond Berens and Swede Berens and Dan Berens talk about the 2016 presidential election Monday at Sandy's Cafe in Benson. Briana Sanchez / Tribune

BENSON - Of the 19 Minnesota counties that swung Republican for this year's presidential election, none did so more drastically than Swift County, which has not voted Republican in a presidential race since Eisenhower in 1952.

"Usually you put DFL after your name, and you got Swift County," said Paul Kittelson, former mayor of Benson and a 52-year resident of the county.

Not this year. Trump won Swift County decisively, garnering 60 percent of the vote. Lac qui Parle and Chippewa counties also voted for Trump this year, two counties which voted for Obama in 2012 and 2008.

"I've been listening to talk in the coffee shops, just remarks of people I know that normally vote Democrat," Kittelson said after the election. "And they're talking Trump."

Hillary Clinton received 20 percent fewer votes in Swift County in 2016 than Barack Obama did in 2012. No other Minnesota county reported a wider swing in votes for the presidential race.

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How could Trump win a county that has voted Republican only four times in the last 100 years?

For Larry Jacobs, director at the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at Humphrey School of Public Affairs, it was easy to see why Swift County - and others like it - could swing.

Jacobs projected Trump's win over five months ago in a Star Tribune editorial. He said Monday that Swift's swing follows what's going on in the rest of the state.

"The majority is saying that they thought the economy was performing poorly or not well," Jacobs said . "The majority of those people voted for Donald Trump. What that suggests to me is that this election was in large part a referendum in how things are going."

At the Benson Bakery last Monday afternoon, three men and two women echoed that sentiment. They sat at a table, drinking coffee and talking.

Four of them said they voted for Trump in this year's election, despite identifying as typically Democratic. One woman said she did not vote for president at all, just local candidates.

None of the five wanted to make their names public. They did not want others to know how they had voted.

Their voting choices seemed to be more a reflection of unsatisfactory options than full-on endorsement: They said Clinton was untrustworthy.

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"If it had been someone different, it might have made a difference," one man said.

The aftermath of the election was also worrying to them. They mentioned recent protests across the country.

"It's dividing our country, and I don't like to see that," a woman said.

Unlike in some other parts of the country that voted Republican in the presidential race, Swift County did not vote a straight Republican ticket.

Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who has represented Minnesota's 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1991, was re-elected in the county and the district. He actually received more votes than Trump did - and won by a slightly larger margin - in the county.

Reed Anfinson has published the Swift County Monitor-News since 1990, and his family has owned the paper much longer. He said the county's Democratic tradition is largely "blue dog," i.e. socially conservative.

"We've always had an ability out here to vote for Democrats who are socially conservative. Collin Peterson is an example of that," Anfinson said.

But he added that voter loyalty also played a part in Peterson's re-election. Other local socially conservative Democrats were not re-elected, a shock to some in the county.

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For example, Sen. Lyle Koenen lost his re-election bid, a conservative Democrat and dairy farmer who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and voted against legalizing gay marriage. Koenen lost the race in both Swift County and the entire District 17. District 17 includes all of Kandiyohi and Swift counties, and most of Chippewa and Renville counties.

"He fit the district perfectly," Anfinson said. "He was tainted by running at the same side of the ticket as Clinton. There wasn't a lot of tolerance on the Democratic side of the ticket."

For many in the county, change was the overwhelming theme, Anfinson said, and that trickled down to local politics. He voted for Clinton, and the Monitor-News endorsed her.

But he said that Clinton did not inspire people the way that Obama did in 2008 and 2012.

"Bernie (Sanders) would have been better on that standpoint," Anfinson said. "Clinton was status quo. Obama was a candidate that inspired people, and that's why I think he did so well here."

Trump's rhetoric was more negative than Obama's, but inspiring nonetheless, Anfinson said.

"They didn't want a carpenter, they wanted an arsonist," he said. "They saw the carpenter just rebuilding the structure as it was."

Swift County has lost nearly 20 percent of its population in the past 15 years, according to U.S. Census data, due in part to urbanization and the shuttering of Appleton's private prison. Many of those who remain worry about high healthcare costs and stagnant wages.

It's not just the working class. Anfinson said the shift was really in the middle class voters, pro-gun, pro-life and anti-immigration, who voted on social issues, those they felt Trump promised to protect.

Allen Saunders, chairman of the Swift County Republicans, said that's a trend he has been seeing in 30 years as an election judge in the area.

"It's not totally brand new, I think it's kind of been coming," Saunders said Tuesday. "I think like in most of the county, people just got fed up with the Democrats' agenda and their values and rejected them."

Walk into Sandy's Cafe in Benson on a Monday afternoon and you'll find people who share that opinion.

Butch Berens, Glen Rois, Jim Goff, Raymond Berens, Swede Berens, Dan Berens and Clete Grossman sat in a corner booth on a Monday afternoon clutching coffee mugs, joking and laughing.

All self-proclaimed Trump voters, they said they weren't that surprised Trump won the county. But they also said they have voted Republican all their lives - except Swede, who voted once for John F. Kennedy.

"I think they found out that polls don't mean much," Grossman said.

"Hillary was never too interested in getting Minnesota," Dan Berens added.

As for Trump's success in office? "All depends on who he surrounds himself with," Butch Berens said. "We can't do any worse than what we have."

In a phone conversation last week, Kittelson also felt Democrats weren't representing people in Swift County.

"I think nationally, what was happening is they were putting all their marbles in New York, your far East liberals and your far West, and they forgot about the guys out here," Kittelson said.

The population of Swift County has declined in the past 10 years, but voter turnout increased this year over 2012. As an election judge, Saunders compared the spike in turnout this year to 1998, when Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota.

"We were kind of thinking that might happen. When Jesse Ventura ran for governor, we had people show up to the polls that we'd never seen before," he said.

But the story was also in who did not vote, at least for president.

"A selective turnout was one of the biggest shocks of the election," Jacobs said.

At least 300 Swift County residents who voted in the congressional district race did not vote for president, Anfinson said.

The political future in Swift County isn't necessarily decided by this election. Saunders said it depends on what is accomplished both locally and nationally. Voters in Swift County wanted overhauls of policy on several issues including health care, immigration and the economy.

"I think it's gonna be a battle," Saunders said. "If things don't look a lot better in two years, things could turn around again."

Jacobs agreed.

"I think it's up for grabs, we'll see how Trump does in office," he said. "I think it's gonna be conservative Democrats who survive, but also Democrats who connect with their rural constituency."

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