Exuberant Democrats burst into song inside Payson’s Democratic Headquarters Tuesday night after Sen. Barack Obama was announced the president-elect — “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Down the street at Payson’s Republican headquarters, those gathered were disappointed, but faithful that the Grand Old Party would re-emerge even stronger than before.
“We’re delirious,” said Elaine Bohlmeyer, president of the Democratic Women of Rim Country. “We have worked so hard here,” she said. “We have made thousands of phone calls.” Bohlmeyer said volunteers telephoned potential voters until 7 p.m. Tuesday night, which was when the polls closed.
Voter turnout in Gila County reached 66 percent — well under the 80 to 85 percent county officials predicted based on a record high number of early ballots returned. And this year’s turnout was lower than the 79 percent who voted in the 2004 presidential election.
Some provisional ballots have yet to be counted, though the exact number couldn’t be determined by press time.
Statewide voter turnout mirrored Gila County’s — 64 percent this year, but 77 percent in 2004.
In the presidential election, Republican Sen. John McCain won Gila County with 62.6 percent of the vote to Obama’s 35.4 percent. However, Payson Republicans did not seem to be in a celebratory mood.
Shortly after Obama’s victory was announced, the few remaining people at the Republican headquarters — the room was reportedly full earlier — folded up chairs and contemplated their candidate’s loss.
“I just think it was style over substance,” said Jane Evans.
“A lot of people think (Obama is) a good orator.” However, she added, “He’s not going to have a teleprompter in the Oval Office.”
Many Gila County races were still undecided by 9 p.m. Tuesday, and Payson’s own Republican state representative candidate Barbara Brewer sat next to a computer screen watching her early lead erode in favor of Rep. Jack Brown, the Democratic incumbent from St. Johns. Rep. Bill Konopnicki, the incumbent Republican from Safford, stayed ahead for most of the evening.
“It’s still early,” Brewer said hopefully. Local Republicans expect that the party will grow stronger in the aftermath of this campaign season’s fractures.
“You just kind of have to step back and look at the whole picture,” Brewer said.
Ted Thayer, a non-partisan candidate in the District 3 Gila County supervisor race, has belonged to both parties. Democrats have learned how to fund-raise, Thayer said, which was “the thing Republicans used to do very well.”
“The Republicans used to be the conservative party. Least government is best government,” Thayer said. “That somehow has gotten lost and it was not the message during this election.”
Republican Michelle Mitchellbayse says the party needs to move to the center. A Dallas resident, Mitchellbayse and her husband also have a house in Pine, which is where they were driving when they saw the Obama sign on Beeline Highway and stopped into the headquarters to watch the election coverage. Mitchellbayse grew up in Arizona.
After supporting McCain in 2000, Mitchellbayse said she backed Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House, even becoming a delegate. Hillary’s loss temporarily disenfranchised Mitchellbayse, but she eventually decided to back Obama.
“Sarah Palin turned me off,” Mitchellbayse said of the Republican vice-presidential nominee. “I want someone that’s smarter than me. I just felt she was exploiting her ignorance, you know, dropping the g’s.”
Mitchellbayse says she still considers herself a Republican, but felt disappointed by what she felt was a negative McCain campaign. “It’s almost like he drank the Kool-Aid to be elected.”
She says the social issues Republicans have been focusing on are unnecessarily divisive, and that the party needs to discover a middle ground in order to re-invigorate.
“I’m not the one that changed. I’m still a Republican. I didn’t leave them, they left me,” Mitchellbayse said.
Whether her view is indicative of the zeitgeist, however, remains to be seen.
Obama faces immense challenges in the coming years with a struggling economy that could impact his domestic agenda, multiple wars, and re-igniting tensions with Russia.
Democrat Dell Bohlmeyer predicted the president-elect would govern in a centrist way. “We’ve got to put our country first,” he said. “I’m not sure anybody can do it in four years no matter who it is.”