Pete Buttigieg knew he was foraying into unfriendly confines when he was en route to Orange City, the seat of Iowa’s most conservative county.
The gay ex-mayor of South Bend, Indiana, may be in the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates seeking to win this vital first voting state next month, but his sexuality was seen as likely to be a major issue in this corner of the state, Sioux county.
The campaign braced for protesters in light of public burnings of library books depicting gay relationships and vociferous opposition to the town’s annual gay Pride festival, said Ben Halle, Buttigieg’s Iowa communications director, to the Guardian.
Halle said didn’t know what to expect as far as a crowd, but he said it was fair to expect opposition as Buttigieg’s campaign rolled into town.
“What you need to realize with Sioux county is there’s a very strong religious flavor there, from their courts to their public squares,” said Ned Bjornstad, a former elected prosecutor in north-west Iowa turned veteran defense attorney who practices regularly in Orange City. “For a candidate like Buttigieg, I’d expect protesters.”
There weren’t any.
As Buttigieg entered the Prairie Winds Events Center in downtown Orange City, a crowd of around 200 instead roared in a standing ovation.
Regan Harms, a 22-year-old senior majoring in biblical studies at Northwestern College in Orange City, said she wasn’t at all surprised with the turnout. As she introduced Buttigieg, she described him as a neighbor and fellow midwesterner, one who understands life in rural America.
“Iowans long for someone who understands them,” Harms said. “The second you meet him, you get that impression that he almost knows you. Of course he can come into Orange City, and people will like him. There’s that common bond among midwesterners.”
But Orange City is hostile territory to Democrats and fervently socially conservative. There, no Democrat running for governor or president has registered over 18% support since 2008. In Orange City, penalties are levied for work on Sunday. In July, a petition listing over 300 signatures asked the Orange City public library to ban books related to homosexual relationships and transgender people. A man was even convicted of burning said books outside the library.
In nearby Sioux Center in September, the Sioux County Conservatives alleged a restaurant was “celebrating sin” by hosting Pride brunch on a Sunday.
When asked whether people in Orange City cared about whether Buttigieg was gay, Harms said she wouldn’t answer that question.
“It’s a divisive topic here in town, of course,” she said. “Obviously, some people care, but look at this crowd. Others don’t.”
Buttigieg maintains he’s the candidate who can blaze the trail. After he announced he was gay, he won a second term in South Bend with a greater share of the vote.
While the Orange City crowd wasn’t roaring when Buttigieg announced his socially progressive platforms, only one crowd member asked him whether the country was ready for its first gay president. Buttigieg replied that it had taken a leap of faith to run as a gay man in South Bend, and it would take another to win the presidency.
“In the last 50 years, every Democratic president has a perspective outside Washington, is new on the national scene, and is of a new generation,” he said. “I check all those boxes.”
With less than three weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, Buttigieg’s chances are as good as any, said Brad Best, professor of political science at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. Buttigieg has consistently polled in the top four in Iowa and New Hampshire since the late summer, but has suffered a slide as of late as the campaign enters a frenetic final period.
“I can’t think of anyone more anathema to the seat of Sioux county, but a packed house there suggests there’s broad appeal, for whatever reason,” Best said.
Some Democrats believe that Trump’s behavior in office and scandal-plagued personal and political life may be hurting him even in this Republican stronghold and opening an unlikely door to candidates like Buttigieg – who himself confesses a deep religious faith.
“Look at it this way: the red wall has begun to crack,” said the former state senator David Johnson, who used to represent the area. Johnson left the Republican party and declared himself an independent after it declared Trump its nominee.
“Think about it: there were over 200 people in Orange City to see Pete Buttigieg and there aren’t even 2,000 registered Democrats in that county. That means there are independents and Republicans in that crowd,” Price said.
Corrie Hayes, a 21-year-old senior at Northwestern College, said she was impressed particularly with his response to a question about abortion rights, when he said that in the Book of Genesis, life begins with breath. She wouldn’t get into her positions on policy – she said she was deeply religious and her faith guided her every day – but she said she could tell Buttigieg was sincere about his faith.
Hayes feels it isn’t fair to question whether Buttigieg is “electable” simply because he’s gay.
“People [in Orange City] love each other regardless of who you are,” she said. “And that’s the reason I like Pete. He feels the same way.”