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Red county, blue county

Long before the votes were cast in November’s presidential race, most of the country had already conceded California as an electoral win for a Democrat.

And many residents in Nevada County figured George W. Bush to be the likely winner in the county, where he had won support four years ago. After all, registered Republicans outnumbered registered Democrats in the county by a whopping 18 percent for the March primary, with a similar trend appearing in the surrounding counties, as well.

But the local political landscape is not so simple as those vote totals may suggest.

This map, which depicts the local vote for president in the familiar John Kerry blue shades and George Bush reds, gives the first real picture of the modern political polarization in the county. The pistol-shape outline of the county is clustered with spots of blues and reds, demonstrating that while Bush supporters have a strong hold on the “handle,” several of the county’s northern communities lean Democratic.

Shifting ground

So, after recognizing that California would not be the next Florida and that this county would probably not be making national news the way Broward County, Fla., had, the question left to be answered by the November presidential race was whether any political ground would be shifted by the election.

While the 2004 election saw Bush take 53.3 percent of the total vote in Nevada County, it was quite a bit below average compared to the surrounding counties – and it was lower than Bush’s local support level in 2000.

During this last election, Yuba County had the greatest pro-Bush voter turnout of nearby counties, with two-thirds of Yuba County residents voting Republican. Nevada County actually had one of the slimmest Republican margins of victory in the region. In Placer County, Bush won with a clean 62.3 percent of the vote.

When compared with the state average of 44.4 percent, the rural mountain counties form a bastion of Bush supporters.

But Bush’s support in Nevada County did flag a bit during the last election, dropping almost 1.5 percentage points from 2000. While Sierra County Republicans lost a little ground, it fell only .3 percent.

Bush supporters in Yuba and Placer counties significantly increased from 2000 to 2004.

While the decrease in the Republican vote percentage in Nevada County was not significant enough to change the result, the Democrats did dramatically increase their numbers.

From 2000, there was an almost 8 percent rise in Democrat support, bringing the race closer than it had been since 1992, when 4 percentage points separated George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton.

That was also the year Ross Perot made a sizable showing as a third-party candidate and the year the median price to buy a house in the county was $158,000.

Mary Longmore, chairwoman of the county’s Democratic Central Committee, attributed the increase in part to the opening of a permanent party headquarters last year.

“If you are a Democrat, you need a home to come to. This way we kept the issues out in front and we were able to deal with them,” she said.

A political paradox?

While it is easy to compare the county’s voting records to the neighboring counties, long-term trends within the county’s borders are tougher to see. Precinct boundaries have changed, new precincts have been added, and the county’s relatively new GIS department has not kept maps from previous elections depicting the past precinct makeups.

But an analysis of the 2004 data does show where each candidate found strong local support in the race for president.

Supporters of John Kerry appear to hold sway in areas such as Nevada City, the San Juan Ridge and large swaths of eastern Nevada County, according to the map.

When broken down into the county’s supervisorial districts, Kerry supporters live mostly in Districts 1, 4 and 5. But voters in each of these areas have selected Republican-supported candidates to represent them on their county’s Board of Supervisors.

Some of the candidates for the nonpartisan supervisor seats say their support goes beyond party lines.

Last year, candidate Nate Beason won a seat in the Nevada City-based District 1, home to the self-described “left to extreme left” community radio station KVMR and other liberal-leaning groups such as the South Yuba River Citizens League.

When interviewed on election night, after it became clear that he had most likely won the race, Beason said, “just because I am Republican doesn’t mean I am conservative. (Calling me a conservative) sets up a false assumption.”

But for District 4 Supervisor Robin Sutherland, also a Republican, local politics is a priority in her district, saying that many people fear a loss of local control. District 4 is composed of much of the ranching and farming lands of the county and communities such as Rough and Ready and Penn Valley. It also is home to the mountainous, more inaccessible regions farther north.

While the vote appears diverse in her district, Sutherland said there is more similarity than many would think. “People are pretty much across the board against overregulation,” she said, citing opposition to Wild and Scenic status for waterways and other environmental policies that she felt potentially threaten property rights.

Before Sutherland, however, environmental activist Izzy Martin represented the same district. Martin – who helped spearhead the movement that got the Sierra Nevada Conservancy signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – could be considered by many to be as liberal as Sutherland is conservative.

Martin attributes the district’s diversity to a few things, “partly because the way the map is drawn and also the unique physical characteristics,” Martin said, explaining that while she was a supervisor, the district lines were redrawn to accommodate for growth in Truckee’s District 5.

Where Republicans reign

While the northern end of Highway 49 may show the spots of darkest blue on the 2004 election map, the Kerry-supporting shade lightens around Nevada City. Grass Valley itself is quite balanced, with no clear majority for either candidate. As one goes further south along Highway 49, or further west on Highway 20, the reds become more pronounced.

This is solid Bush country.

Nevada County Supervisor Sue Horne’s District 2 encompasses much of this expanse.

Horne said her district encompasses family oriented and retirement community developments such as Alta Sierra and Lake of the Pines. Many settle there because home prices are more affordable than those in Nevada City, where housing prices have experienced the second-highest increases in the state during the past 10 years.

The southern District 2 is also an area where homes are more often for sale, said Skip Lusk, the executive officer of the Nevada County Board of Realtors.

Alta Sierra is also home to the Republican state senator, Sam Aanestad. Aanestad is one of several legislators who represent various parts of the county on state and national levels.

“I just know that it is a strongly Republican district. The registration is strongly Republican,” Horne said. According to data from the Nevada County Clerk-Recorder’s Office, there were more than twice the number of registered Republicans than registered Democrats in District 2 for the March primary – more than any other district.