The San Juan Daily Star
Their America is vanishing. Like Trump, they insist they were cheated.
By Michael H. Keller and David D. Kirkpatrick
When Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas voted last year to reject Donald Trump’s electoral defeat, many of his constituents back home in Fort Bend County were thrilled.
Like the former president, they have been unhappy with the changes unfolding around them. Crime and sprawl from Houston, the big city next door, have been spilling over into their once bucolic towns. (“Build a wall,” Nehls likes to say, and make Houston pay.) The county in recent years has become one of the nation’s most diverse, where the former white majority has fallen to just 30% of the population.
Don Demel, a 61-year-old salesman who turned out last month to pick up a signed copy of a book by Nehls about the supposedly stolen election, said his parents had raised him “colorblind.” But the reason for the discontent was clear: Other white people in Fort Bend “did not like certain people coming here,” he said. “It’s race. They are old-school.”
A shrinking white share of the population is a hallmark of the congressional districts held by the House Republicans who voted to challenge Trump’s defeat, a New York Times analysis found — a pattern political scientists say shows how white fear of losing status shaped the movement to keep him in power.
The portion of white residents dropped about 35% more over the past three decades in those districts than in territory represented by other Republicans, the analysis found, and constituents also lagged behind in income and education. Rates of so-called deaths of despair, such as suicide, drug overdose and alcohol-related liver failure, were notably higher as well.
Although overshadowed by the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the House vote that day was the most consequential of Trump’s ploys to overturn the election. It cast doubt on the central ritual of American democracy, galvanized the party’s grassroots around the myth of a stolen victory and set a precedent that legal experts — and some Republican lawmakers — warn could perpetually embroil Congress in choosing a president.
To understand the social forces converging in that historic vote — objecting to the Electoral College count — the Times examined the constituencies of the lawmakers who joined the effort, analyzing census and other data from congressional districts and interviewing scores of residents and local officials. The Times previously revealed the back-room maneuvers inside the House, including convincing lawmakers that they could reject the results without explicitly endorsing Trump’s outlandish fraud claims.
Many of the 139 objectors, including Nehls, said they were driven in part by the demands of their voters. “You sent me to Congress to fight for President Trump and election integrity,” Nehls wrote in a tweet on Jan. 5, 2021, “and that’s exactly what I am doing.” At a Republican caucus meeting a few days later, Rep. Bill Johnson, from an Ohio district stretching into Appalachia, told colleagues that his constituents would “go ballistic” with “raging fire” if he broke with Trump, according to a recording.
Certain districts primarily reflect either the racial or socioeconomic characteristics. But the typical objector district shows both — a fact demographers said was striking.
Because they are more vulnerable, disadvantaged or less educated white voters can feel especially endangered by the trend toward a minority majority, said Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at George Mason University who studies the attitudes of those voters.
“A lot of white Americans who are really threatened are willing to reject democratic norms,” she said, “because they see it as a way to protect their status.”
That may help explain why the dispute over Trump’s defeat has emerged at this moment in history, with economic inequality reaching new heights and the white population of the United States expected within about two decades to lose its majority.
Many of the objectors’ districts started with a significantly larger Black minority, or had a rapid increase in the Hispanic population, making the decline in the white population more pronounced.
Of the 12 Republican-held districts that swung to minority white — almost all in California and Texas — 10 were represented by objectors. The most significant drops occurred in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs and California desert towns, where the white percentage fell by more than one-third.
Lawmakers who objected were also overrepresented among the 70 Republican-held districts with the lowest percentages of college graduates. In one case — the southeast Kentucky district of Hal Rogers, currently the longest-serving House member — about 14% of residents had four-year degrees, less than half the average in the districts of Republicans who accepted the election results.
While Nehls’ district exemplifies demographic change, Rep. H. Morgan Griffith’s in southwest Virginia is among the poorest in the country. Once dominated by coal, manufacturing and tobacco, the area’s economic base eroded with competition from new energy sources and foreign importers. Doctors prescribed opioids to injured laborers and an epidemic of addiction soon followed.
Residents, roughly 90% of them white, gripe that the educated elites of the Northern Virginia suburbs think that “the state stops at Roanoke.” They take umbrage at what they consider condescension from outsiders who view their communities as poverty-stricken, and they bemoan “Ph.D pollution” from the big local university, Virginia Tech. After a long history of broken government promises, many said in interviews they had lost faith in the political process and public institutions — in almost everyone but Trump, who they said championed their cause.
In a bustling clinic called the Health Wagon in Griffith’s district, Paula Hill-Collins sees low-income and uninsured patients with maladies from tooth decay to heart conditions and diabetes.
Since the last election, they have often raised another complaint: the false claim that Democrats stole Trump’s victory.
“‘Did you see that box of votes that was thrown away? Did you see they found extra ones?’ This is what we hear from our patients,” said Hill-Collins, a nurse practitioner who grew up in the town of Coeburn, population 1,600.
Residents of the area — former coal towns at the southern end of Appalachia — have felt cheated for generations, she said. “They believe it because look what’s happened to us,” she said, recalling the exploitation of her community first by mining interests and more recently by drugmakers. “That’s fed a culture of suspicion.”
Conditions like diabetes and heart disease overlap so often that health workers feel lucky when their patients can walk in the door, said Teresa Owens Tyson, a nurse practitioner at the Health Wagon. “Sometimes they collapse in the parking lot,” she said.
Although not all are so hard-pressed, the districts of the House objectors share similar disadvantages. Households there had nearly 10% less annual income in 2020 than those in other Republican areas. Not only were college degrees less common, so were high school diplomas.
The GOP’s hold on those districts reflects its shift away from its former country club image to become the party of those left behind. The residents of Democratic districts, on average, are better educated and earn significantly more.
Some residents said that their reasons for questioning the results should be obvious to anyone: the relatively small size of Biden’s rallies, the overnight disappearance of Trump’s early lead as more votes were tallied, the allegations about stuffed ballot drop boxes.
“It’s not a political thing. It’s a we-love-our-country thing,’” said Alecia Vaught, 46, a homemaker and Republican organizer in Christiansburg. “You’re either for America or you’re not.”
Griffith, 64, a lawyer and state legislator before joining Congress, built his career fighting for the lost cause of coal. In the Tea Party wave of 2010, he defeated a 14-term Democratic incumbent by slamming him for supporting carbon caps.
When Trump lost in 2020, his claims of a stolen election quickly took hold in the district. “I’d be pumping gas and people who didn’t even know me would want to know if I thought the election was stolen,” said Frank Kilgore, 70, a lawyer-lobbyist and local historian who is an independent.
“Morgan heard it more and more from his base,” Kilgore added. Local Republican leaders “said they thought it was stolen, too,” raising the specter of a primary challenge if Griffith voted to accept the results. Constituents circulated a petition demanding that he fight Trump’s loss.
Yet Griffith was not among the vocal chorus of House Republicans echoing Trump. On Jan. 6, 2021, he voted to object citing only changes to election procedures during the pandemic.
The congressman, who declined to comment for this article, wrote to constituents after Biden was inaugurated: “It is time to move forward.”
Texas is one of six states where the white population is now outnumbered by Black, Hispanic and Asian residents. Nehls’ district, which includes most of Fort Bend County, is part of the reason: It swung from nearly 70% to less than 40% white over the past three decades.
But changing demographics in many places may not yet be reflected at the polls, because of a larger white share of the voting-age population and higher turnout levels. Exit polls show that white Texans still made up 60% of the state’s voters in 2020.
The greater Houston area is the center of the state’s transformation and also a hub of the “stop the steal” movement. True the Vote, the organization behind some of the loudest accusations of voter fraud, was founded 12 years ago by a Fort Bend resident who claimed that a nonprofit was falsely registering voters in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Houston. A cluster of congressmen who actively promoted Trump’s election denial come from the area. Next month, another Republican who calls the election stolen is expected to replace an incumbent who accepted the Biden victory and did not seek reelection.
Many Fort Bend-area Republicans say their doubts about the 2020 results have nothing to do with race.
“I think it has more to do with polarization than it does with racial or demographic issues,” said Jacey Jetton, 39, a Texas state legislator and former GOP county chairman. “We are so divided now,” he added, that no one can accept that their opponents “believe what they believe.”
Some Fort Bend Democrats said they saw an obvious connection between the declining white share of the population and the refusal by Nehls and his supporters to accept Trump’s defeat.
“It is a power grab by white Republicans,” said K.P. George, a Democrat born in India who was elected in 2018 as the county’s top executive, the first nonwhite person to hold the office.
Nehls, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, served as the county sheriff for eight years before running for Congress in 2020. His seat appears safe this year because the Republican-controlled state Legislature redrew the boundaries of his district to include more predominantly white and solidly Republican terrain outside Fort Bend County. Whites now make up a majority of the eligible voters in the district.
Nehls said election fraud was the only thing that could stop “the greatest leader of my lifetime” from returning to the Oval Office in 2024.
“In a fair election, you can’t beat Donald Trump!” Nehls said, posing for photographs in front of a life-size photo of the former president.
He saw no fear of demographic change among his supporters, he said. “These people aren’t against brown or Black people. They just don’t like the way Democrats are running the country.”