Republican America rethinks its image of the country

 

HENDERSONVILLE, Tennessee

She arrived early to take apart the campaign office piece by piece, just as she felt so many other things about her life were being dismantled.

Beth Cox wore a Mitt Romney T-shirt, a cross around her neck and fresh eyeliner, even though she had been crying on and off and knew her makeup was likely to run. A day after the election, she tuned the radio to Glenn Beck and began pulling posters and American flags off the wall.

Her calendar read "Victory Day!!" and she had planned to celebrate in the office by hosting a dance party and selling Romney souvenirs. But instead she was packing those souvenirs into boxes, which would be donated to a charity that sent clothes to South America. Instead a moving company was en route to close down the office in the next 48 hours, and her friends were calling every few minutes to see how she was doing.

"I will be OK," she told one caller. "I just don't think we will be OK."

Here in the heart of Red America, Cox and many others spent last week grieving not only for themselves and their candidate but also for a country they now believe has gone wildly off track. The days after Barack Obama's reelection gave birth to a saying in central Tennessee: Once was a slip, but twice is a sign.

If, as Obama likes to say, the country has decided to "move forward," it has also decided to move further away from the values and beliefs of a state where Romney won 60 percent of the vote, a county where he won 70 percent and a town where he won nearly 80.

Among so many Romney voters, perhaps none had been as devoted to the cause — as indefatigable, as confident, as prayerful — as 44-year-old Beth Cox, a member of the school board and a volunteer who had committed to Romney early in the Republican primaries. She had run the small GOP campaign headquarters in Sumner County by herself for six days a week during the past four months. She had been the first in line to vote on the first day of early voting.

Now it was left to her to clean up the aftermath. She stood next to a space heater in a small building in the exurbs of Nashville, taking inventory of what supplies they had left and packing up boxes of red-white-and-blue streamers. She put away the pink Romney shirts, the white Romney-Ryan hats and the GOP bumper stickers with the Tennessee logo. Down came the sign reading "We Built It!" Down came the elephant flag and the George W. Bush commemorative emblem. Down came the signed picture of Romney with a typed inscription that read "This is a great time to be a Republican."

But now Cox was wondering: Was it?

She had devoted her life to causes she believed were at the heart of her faith and at the core of her Republican Party. She counseled young married families at church, spoke about the right to life in schools and became a stay-at-home mom with two daughters.

Now, in a single election night, parts of her country had legalized marijuana, approved gay marriage and resoundingly reelected a president who she worried would "accelerate our decline."

While she took apart the office, a dozen friends and neighbors stopped by to share the same concerns.

"I just don't get it," the county sheriff said.

"I'm worried we won't see another Republican president in our lifetime the way it's going," a GOP volunteer said.

"What country would want more years of this?" asked the newly elected alderman.

Cox shrugged back at them. "I don't know anymore," she said. "What the heck happened to the country? Who are we becoming?"

She turned on her computer and pulled up an electoral map that she had filled out a few days before the election. She had predicted the outcome twice — once coming up with a narrow Romney win and once more with a blowout.

Florida: red.

Colorado: red.

Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin: all red.

Everything in her version of America had confirmed her predictions: the confident anchors on Fox News; the Republican pollsters so sure of their data; the two-hour line outside her voting precinct, where Romney supporters hugged and honked for her handmade signs during a celebration that lasted until the results started coming in after sundown. Romney's thorough defeat had come more as a shock than as a disappointment, and now Cox stared at the actual results on her computer and tried to imagine what the majority of her country believed.

"Virginia went blue? Really?" she said. "Southern-values Virginia?"

"And Colorado? Who the heck is living in Colorado? Do they want drugs, dependency, indulgence? Don't they remember what this country is about?"

It was a country she had thought she knew. As a kid, she had seen it from the back of a station wagon, traveling to 40 states in a blur of peanut butter crackers and Holiday Inns with a mother who taught U.S. history.

"I am not naive. I'm not ignorant," Cox said. She had graduated from the University of Kentucky and lived for a few years in California before moving to raise her family in Tennessee. But suddenly the map on her computer depicted a divided country she could barely recognize.

She blamed some of the divisiveness on Republicans. The party had gotten "way too white," she said, and she hoped it would never again run a presidential ticket without including a woman or a minority. The tea party was an extremist movement that needed to be "neutralized," she said, and Romney's campaign had suffered irreparable damage when high-profile Republicans spoke about "crazy immigration talk and legitimate rape."

But many other aspects of the division seemed fundamental and harder to solve. There was the America of increased secularism that legalized marijuana. And there was her America, where her two teenage daughters are not allowed to read "Harry Potter" or "Twilight," and where one of them wrote in a school paper: "God is the center and the main foundation of my family."

There was the America of gay marriage and the America of her Southern Baptist church, where 7,000 came to listen on Sundays, and where church literature described marriage as "the uniting of one man and one woman."

There was the America of Obama and her America in Tennessee, where last week Republicans had won 95 percent of local races and secured a supermajority in the state legislature.

She could sense liberalism creeping closer, and she worried about what Red America would look like after four more years. Nashville itself had gone for Obama, and 400,000 more people in Tennessee had signed up for food stamps in the past five years to further a culture of dependency. The ACLU had sued her school board for allowing youth pastors to visit middle school cafeterias during lunch. Some of her friends had begun to wonder if the country was lost, and if only God could save it.

She closed her computer.

"God put us in the desert," she said. "We are in the desert right now."

Later that night, she left her two-story house in the suburbs and headed to a church a mile outside of town. It was her place of comfort — the place where she always found an answer. She drove onto the church's sprawling campus, past the children's center, the volleyball courts and techno-lit recreation room for teenagers, and parked in front of a small building. Then she walked up to the second floor to lead her weekly prayer group of 25 women.

It was a demographic that, in so many other places, would have voted for Obama: white women, college-educated and in their early to mid-20s, most of them upper-middle class. But here they had almost all voted for Romney, and they consoled one another as they entered the room. Cox joined them in the circle and bent her head in prayer.

"Yes, Lord," she said. "We are saying yes to honoring you but no to the junk of this world, to the wickedness, the self-gratification, the path that we are just saddened by. We choose your path, Lord."

It was a path that had worked for her, providing strength and stability during her parents' rocky divorce, and then helping her transform from a stubbornly independent woman — the "feminist, I-am-woman, hear-me-roar type," she said — into a mother and a wife who respected what she called the "natural order of the household." She had two beautiful daughters who earned A's and a husband who took time off from his job as a pastor for annual family "playcations" to museums and amusement parks. Local Republicans were encouraging her to run for state office, but she didn't want to give up her volunteering, her scrapbooking, her weekend getaways with her daughters — her "godly life," she said.

It was the same life she wanted for the women in this room — newly married, new to motherhood and beginning to sort out priorities of their own.

"The world will tell you to be so many things," she advised them, and on this night she talked to them about the importance of preserving life, the sanctity of marriage, the advantages of raising children at home, and the importance of "relying on family, and on your core values, and not on the government."

"It's not an easy road to be a Christian, and if it was, everybody would be on it," she said. She passed out blank white notecards and asked each woman to write down a worry to surrender to God. Then, before closing, she asked what they wanted to pray for.

"Our president," said one, and the women in the group nodded.

"Our values," said another.

"All people in our country who are lost."

"The soul of America."

"Amen," Cox said.

She came back into the Romney office again the next morning. The moving truck was waiting outside.

"It's so depressing," she said, walking into the office. "Let's just get it done."

They threw out yard signs, hauled office supplies into storage and donated some furniture to Goodwill. Cox swept the floor and then came outside to watch the mover climb on top of his trailer to take down the "Sumner County Republican Party" banner that had hung on the front of the building. Four months of dedication and work — the sale of 1,600 signs, 500 bracelets, 1,200 buttons and a few hundred hats — reduced to nothing in 48 hours.

She stood in the cold and stared at the two-story building. It had belonged to a doctor's practice that had closed, and then to a newspaper that had downsized, and finally to a campaign that had failed to win office based on its vision of America.

She took out her phone and snapped a picture.

"So that's it," she said. "It's all gone."

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