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Republicans in Ohio's Coal Country Say Donald Trump is on Their Side

Around 3,300 people live in Cadiz, the county seat of Harrison County. (Nick Castele / ideastream)
Around 3,300 people live in Cadiz, the county seat of Harrison County.

Few Ohio counties voted as strongly for Donald Trump in this year’s primary as did Harrison County, about two hours southeast of Cleveland. Trump won 52 percent of the vote there, defeating Gov. John Kasich by more than 20 points.

Interviews with Trump supporters in Harrison County offered a glimpse at the GOP nominee’s appeal in eastern Ohio.

‘He’s for us.’

Don Rogers is sitting on his porch in Cadiz, Ohio, the county seat and a village of about 3,000 people. He’s almost 60 years old, wears a Harley Davidson baseball cap and speaks through a bushy blond beard.

Politicians, he said, “don’t even know we exist.” Trump, on the other hand, “he’s for us.”

“Because he said one thing that I did like,” Rogers said. “These politicians that’s been in there for a while, 25, 30 years, and that hasn’t done nothing yet, it’s time for them to go.”

Rogers said he worked in a coal mine until it closed for a time in the 1980s. That was a hard decade for Harrison County. In 1985, unemployment reached 24 percent. The number of people working in mining in the county today is a fraction of what it was in 1980.

The number of people in the county with jobs has recovered to pre-Recession levels. But Rogers didn’t sound optimistic about the economy as he indicated vacant houses on his street.

“Just come sit on my porch and you’ll see for yourself. Take a good look. Take a good look. And they just started fixing them up, this one and this one. Look, ain’t that a beautiful sight out your window?” he said. “You’re looking at shacks. Windows beat out, no gutters, downspouts, there’s nothing on their houses.”

Unemployment in Harrison County, estimated at 6.9 percent in July, has long floated higher than the state average. And median household incomes have fallen slightly since Rogers’ coal mining days.

As mining declined, a new industry grew: natural gas. A gas company leased the right to drill on farmland the Rogers family owns.

Rogers’ 20-year-old son, Don Rogers II, joined him on the porch. He graduated from high school and has vocational certificates, but hasn’t found work yet. Like his father, he supports Trump.

“He’s going to get the illegals out, and if they become, if they go get their citizenship or whatever, green card, they can come back. I think that’s fair,” the younger Rogers said. “They come in here for free and don’t pay nothing, they take all our jobs. I don’t like that.”

Don Rogers II says he can’t think of any time when he’s lost out on a job to someone in the country illegally. Harrison County is 96 percent white, and nearly all people here were born in the United States, according to recent Census figures.

Down the street, Rebecca Corder sat outside with a neighbor. Her husband seals off parts of coal mines for a living, she said, while she takes care of the kids.

“I know Trump’s going to make people work, instead of these people that don’t work every day, and sit on their butt, and get welfare and free insurance, and eat good and all that stuff, when us working people are struggling every single day,” Corder said. “We pay $800 a month just to have insurance, and it sucks.”

GOP presidential candidates gain in Harrison County

The county voted for Ted Strickland over John Kasich in the 2010 governor’s race. But the last Democratic presidential candidate to win here was Bill Clinton in 1996.

“I think Appalachia in general has become more conservative over the last 20 years because of the loss of our workforce,” said Rich Milleson, the chairman of the Harrison County Democratic Party. “We use to be a very—and still are—a very strong union background workforce. People who worked with their hands, whether it be the steel mills, the coal mines, the quarries.”

Milleson offered a theory that the decline of union jobs has played a role in Trump’s appeal.

“There’s no more local representation to represent that worker in the workplace,” he said. “I think Donald Trump is speaking to those people.”

‘Now the prisoners are good and the cops are bad.’

A meeting of the Harrison County Republican Party began with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Looking out over the room are photos of movie star Clark Gable, who was born in Cadiz.

For Barry Momyer, that change is in social issues and President Obama’s decision to commute the sentences of hundreds of federal inmates.

“If you look at the culture, lot of fatherless families now. Now abortion, it’s okay to kill babies, that’s all right,” Momyer said. “Now with Obama releasing how many prisoners, now the prisoners are good and the cops are bad.”

Another Republican at the meeting, Josh Willis, is running for county auditor. He recalled a comment Hillary Clinton made at a town hall in Columbus.

“I’m a coal miner, and I am literally voting for my livelihood this year,” Willis said. “Hillary is anti-coal. She came to Ohio and said that she’s going to put coal miners out of work.”

At that town hall, Clinton also said she doesn’t want to forget those workers. She touted a plan to bring renewable energy jobs to coal country. Still, for people here, the words stung.

Paul Coffland is a GOP candidate for county commissioner. While elections are usually cast as contests between Democrats and Republicans, Coffland offers a different way of looking at it.

“You’re looking at a globalist or a nationalist election,” Coffland said. “I don’t care if it’s Clinton, Trump, whoever. Do you want your country to remain sovereign, with laws and borders, or do you want to move to a globalist, not only economy, with trade that kills us, no borders.”

Coffland supported John Kasich in the governor’s race two years ago. But in this year’s primary, he voted for Trump. Kasich is a good man, he said, but he thinks Trump will shake things up.

An earlier version of this story placed the Harrison County unemployment rate around 6 percent. According to the state department of job and family services, the non-seasonally adjusted rate for July is 6.9 percent.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.