While many Mother Lode counties have long been considered GOP strongholds, a look back in history tells a different story.
It’s true that Tuolumne County voters have favored the Democratic presidential candidate in only two of the past 10 elections — and Calaveras County none — but records dating back to 1856 show more flexible partisan allegiances with the shifting economic and political tides.
Tuolumne County citizens have picked Republicans 20 times and Democrats 18 times in the past 39 presidential elections since California became a state. Meanwhile, Calaveras County voters have chosen Republican candidates 27 times and Democrats 11 times.
Both counties picked Progressive third-party candidate Robert LaFollette in 1924.
“It’s always been right of center,” said former Columbia College history professor Richard Dyer of voting trends in the Mother Lode. “Left of center has been represented, but the vote has traditionally been what we call ‘Southern Democrat.’ ”
Many Democrats embraced more liberal stances on economic policy with the enactment of the New Deal in the 1930s, but Southern Democrats stuck by conservative principles such as low taxation and legislating family values.
Rising education levels and prosperity in the South, coupled with the National Democratic Party’s shift further to the left following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, led to a widespread abandonment of Democratic support by white voters in the region.
Since the shift, rural residents have typically voted Republican while Southern Democrats who vote for the Democratic ticket are mostly urban liberals.
According to voting records, 16 of the 18 times Tuolumne County residents voted for a Democratic president was between 1856 and 1964, and all 11 times Calaveras County voted Democratic happened during that period.
“Both Tuolumne and Calaveras — even parts of Amador and Mono — counties have been like a Southern Democratic region, with the emphasis on local control for issues like states’ rights and reduced or minimal taxes,” said Dyer.
Dyer explained that conservative support can largely be attributed to the different lifestyles between people in rural and urban settings.
“It’s the old Southern attitude: You take care of your old shop, you take care of your old house and you don’t ask someone to come bail you out like both parties seem to be doing today,” he said.
Some have speculated the establishment of Columbia College in 1968 may have contributed to an influx of young liberals to the area. Dyer said there was a generally negative attitude about the college’s presence “because groups like the hippies and drug scene were just starting at that time.”
However, voting records do not illustrate a significant weakening of Republican support.
Richard Nixon won the majority vote of Tuolumne and Calaveras residents in 1968 and 1972, followed by Democrat Jimmy Carter in Tuolumne County in 1976. Dyer thinks Carter’s victory in the county had more to do with national political and economic issues of the time rather than any influence the presence of Columbia College might have had.
“They were concerned about issues like the Vietnam War, but I don’t think they were very involved at the time,” Dyer said of the college’s students.
Lifelong Republican and retiring county Supervisor Dick Pland said party allegiances were much different when he moved to the county in 1957.
“When I first went to the polling place and cast a vote here, I asked for a Republican ballot and everybody’s head turned around,” he said.
Pland said over the past five decades he’s seen the “pendulum shift” in favor of Republicans. He noted the more labor-oriented workforce that dominated the area in the early 20th century, but couldn’t say why the change took place.
“It definitely was a blue collar county at the time, more so than it is now,” he said. “But that’s not to say those folks didn’t just change their minds, so I don’t know.”
Part of the shift could be explained by the aging population, which tends to be more conservative, said Ken Fowkes, member and former treasurer of the Tuolumne Democratic Club.
Fowkes moved to the county in 2001 and said the biggest bump in Democratic voter registration was seen during the 2008 election. He said the spike was offset by a corresponding rise in registered Republican voters.
“They are very vocal in this county and they absolutely have the money, it’s as simple as that,” he said of the GOP.