Pickens County at a glance

Population 119,226

Black residents 6.9%

Voted for Barack Obama in 2012 25%

Voted for Nikki Haley in 2010 64%

Residents below poverty level 18.4%

Homeownership rate 70.2%

Non-English speakers 5.1%

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part series profiling counties at opposite ends of South Carolina's political spectrum (as measured by recent election results). This story focuses on the solid Republican turf that is Pickens County.

BY ROBERT BEHRE

rbehre@postandcourier.com

SIX MILE - Anyone wondering why Pickens County voters gave Republican Mitt Romney and Gov. Nikki Haley their biggest margins in South Carolina might want to have lunch at Spangler Grocery on Walhalla Highway.

From the street, it looks more like a convenience store. Several pick-ups are often parked in front, but those who walk by the grocery counter can find a lunch counter that offers a tasty cheeseburger.

And around noon, the crowd can get lively with talk of politics and whatnot.

Told that Pickens voters have voted more Republican than any other county recently, owner Roger Spangler said he's not surprised at all.

"I just wish everybody else would have felt that way," he added.

Pickens County GOP Chair Phillip Bowers recently brought a visitor here to talk politics. While it's just a short drive out of the heart of town, one passes five or six churches along the way. Bowers said he feels he is fairly representative of the county's conservative streak.

"Faith is important. Our education system is important," he said. "It all plays into it. If a child is learning one thing at home and another in school, that's not right."

Of course, most of the talk these days swirls around U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and his many primary challengers. Many here would like to see him lose in June, which might seem ironic, seeing that Graham's father ran a liquor store in this county and he grew up here.

A different history

Those familiar with Charleston's history may know that Pickens' past is quite different. Charleston was settled by immigrants from England and France who tried to recreate Old World's landed aristocracy in the New World.

Pickens was settled by Scotch-Irish immigrants who owned few slaves and had a more independent, hardscrabble existence on the state's frontier.

Clemson University political science professor Dave Woodard, whose own politics tends to lean toward the most conservative candidate electable, described the difference in his book, "The New Southern Politics."

"Charleston, and the coastal plains, once retained strong ties to England, the Anglican Church, old world, wealth, and the refinement of plantation life," he wrote. "The upstate was settled by Scotch-Irish and German farmers suspicious of the English and envious of plantation wealth, and dissenters from the Church of England. They were poor farmers, united in their abhorrence of low-country ways."

It's a county whose people don't back down from a fight. Six Mile is named for its distance from Fort Prince George, where colonists fought Indians, and the county's namesake is Andrew Pickens, whose dueling pistols that he captured during the Revolutionary War remain on the display in the county museum. The courthouse has a tribute to four Medal of Honor winners outside.

Woodard said people familiar only with Charleston and its history would find Pickens an abrupt change. While its history is similar to Greenville's and Spartanburg's, it has remained more rural and hasn't seen the influx of international companies and urban growth.

"I think just culturally, it (Pickens) didn't have much in common with other parts of the state," he said. "We didn't have plantations. We had 40 acres and a mule - and textile manufacturing later."

Democrats to Republicans

Herbert Stancin remembered growing up in the country between Liberty and Six Mile, planting cotton, planting a garden for food and killing two big hogs a year.

He has memories of canning green beans after church and buying farmland for as little as $200 an acre, and some of his uncles made pretty good money on moonshine back during the Depression.

And his story isn't unique here.

"People have always worked," Bowers said of the county's voters. "They worked on farms. They worked in fields and cotton mills," he said. "They're very independent and self-reliant."

Pickens resident Robert Bryant noted the county once was solid Democratic turf because there was a feeling that party was for the common man during the Depression. And the change from Democrat to Republican happened over several decades.

"I can't remember if voted for Clinton or not. I may have," he said.

Bryant said even to this day, he won't vote for a candidate just because of that person's party. "From this point on, I'm going to be looking at the religious values of all elected officials, simply because of abortion," he said. "Doctors who take babies' lives, I don't know about that."

Steve Alexander said he's never voted a straight Republican ticket in his life, but that doesn't mean he sees himself as a moderate.

"If you're a liberal, I don't even want to talk to you," Alexander said. "If you try to agree with one, they'll drag you down to their level and beat you at your own game. There's a reason FOX News has more people watching than all those other networks put together."

Alexander said Graham should ask the people of South Carolina how they want him to vote, and he cited Graham's vote to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "Nobody in South Carolina liked her," he said, adding he is afraid there aren't enough votes to defeat Graham.

"He's kind of like Strom Thurmond now," he added. "When we lost Jim DeMint, we lost the best Senator we had."

But Alexander is a fan of Gov. Nikki Haley. "She's done a good job," he said. "She's brought in industry. She's helped our economy. It could be better, but it could be worse. ... They tried every way in the world to discredit her, and they can't make nothing stick."

A lonely man

Pickens County Democratic Chairman Michael Kiger doesn't argue that his county "does seem to lean a little toward the right."

Kiger said he even voted for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush years ago, but he said since then, the Republican party here has gone even further to the right.

"Of course, Ronald Reagan wouldn't be allowed in the Republican party now, they would run him out on a rail," Kiger said. "This is not the party it was 30 years ago at all. ... It's now a full-out, complete, unqualified hatred of government. Everything about government is bad. Smaller is better, which is not true."

The anti-government sentiment does clash with the reality of the county's two largest employers: the Pickens County School District and Clemson University. Both, as Bowers noted, are "government jobs, unfortunately."

Kiger said there is one Democratic elected official in the county: County Councilman Jeff Martin, who represents the southwestern corner that includes Clemson University and is relatively more liberal than the rest.

"There are a few people in the Republican party who, if they were in the Democratic party, would be Blue Dog Democrats, but they just can't win in the Democratic party," he said. "It's hard to get somebody to step up because they know no matter how good they are or how qualified they are, they're going to lose as a Democrat."

Kiger said he sensed a change after Barack Obama was elected, partly because race is a factor. It's not a coincidence that South Carolina's most Republican and Democratic voting counties also are its most white and black, respectively.

"These are not people going out and putting on hoods. They're not racist in that way, but race makes a difference," Kiger said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.