Virginia Votes: Shenandoah Valley Trump Supporters

Nov 1, 2016

John and Robin Thomas of Buena Vista aren't concerned with Trump's inflammatory comments. They like the fact that he isn't beholden to anyone and wants to curb the national deficit.

Virginia has more than 5 million registered voters. In the end, all those voices will be lumped together to decide who gets the state’s 13 electoral votes.

Today reporter Jessie Knadler takes us to some communities in the rural Shenandoah Valley—  filled with family farms, rolling hills and plenty of Trump supporters.

Rockbridge County leans Republican so it’s not surprising to see lots of big, bold Trump/Pence signs lining the back roads here. Arguably the highest concentration of Trump signs in the County is in the old manufacturing town of Buena Vista.

And the highest concentration of Trump signs in a single yard in Buena Vista? That has to be the home of John and Robin Thomas.  

Four signs dot the Thomas’s front yard while a 5 foot Trump banner waves in the breeze from the front porch.

John Thomas answers the door. “Oh, I ordered mine a long time ago. I’ve had people stop by and ask where I ordered them. I bought them on Amazon.”

The signs make clear their support of their candidate is unequivocal. They could care less about Trump’s diminished standing among women.

Robin Thomas says, “All this stuff that’s been blown up now what with Trump said [about] degrading women…I don’t want to hear anymore of it. Didn’t change my mind and I’m a woman.”

Robin works at the local high school. John dropped out in 10th grade and later earned his GED. He’s now a project manager for a local remodel company.

He says he’s deeply turned off, to put it mildly, by government waste and the soaring national debt. “[I] raised seven kids, have eight grandkids and never got a dime from the government. I own my own home. Everything I own I paid for through my hard work. My adage is, pull up your bootstraps and go to work, okay? So if I can do it, anybody can do it. It’s a choice to get out and do better. That’s what’s missing today. Everybody wants a handout.”

Robin agrees. “I’m tired of politicians and he’s not a politician and he’s not lining his pockets with anyone else’s money so he doesn’t have to do any favors for anyone once he gets into the White House.”

John responds, “Republicans are as much a part of the elitist, progressive one world order that the Democrats are. They’re all backed by big money and big corporations.”

"For people who are dissatisfied with the current path, it's an opportunity to flip the table."

Over in the County seat of Lexington eight miles away, I met with another vocal Trump supporter, Charles Kostelni.

Kostelni worked in New York City for seven years before moving back to Rockbridge County where he now lives with his wife and two children. He owns a sales company that markets wood pulp. “It’s such a small community, sometimes you put yourself in a different position by supporting one candidate or another.”

We met in town, just outside the library at Virginia Military Institute, not exactly a bastion of liberalism. Cadets dressed in white uniforms and peaked caps pulled low over the eyes walked to and from class.

Kostelni acknowledges that Trump isn’t an ideal candidate, but he relates to Trump because of his connection to New York City, having worked with many types of people.

He explains, “When you have the opportunity to work in different careers, see different things, the hardships, you learn things about people that help you represent them. When you don’t have that, when you’re a career politician, you’re insulated from that.”

And although Kostelni has never filed for bankruptcy, he understands how stressful a struggling business can be.

Jacob Thayer is a second year law student at Washington and Lee in Lexington. Far from turning into an autocracy under Trump, as Democrat’s fear, he thinks a Trump presidency might actually stir Congress into action by pulling back some of the power that has ceded to the executive branch over the years.

“Even though he’s a billionaire, he’s had very significant trials and tribulations. To almost go bankrupt, it doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, that is a very stressful, very humbling experience so therefore having gone through those things and rebuilding his company and hiring people and giving people opportunities…you learn things about people because you don’t do it without help. You don’t do it without people from the ground up. So you get a picture of a person. Just because they have money doesn’t mean they’re insulated and removed.”

What becomes clear talking to these Trump supporters is that they’re all desperate for change.

Jacob Thayer is a second year law student at Washington & Lee University, which is literally right next door to VMI and also pretty conservative.

“For people who are dissatisfied with the current path, it’s an opportunity to flip the table.”

Thayer is from Texas. He has a degree in political science from George Washington University in D.C. He also worked for a member of Austin's city council after grad school, He’s fascinated by politics. He actually wants to be President of the United States somebody.

“I read Jimmy Carter’s schedule. They released his diary not too long ago and it is exhausting just to page [through] and read this stuff for one day.”

He says he wants someone to “flip the table.” But flip the table to what—that’s the million dollar question.

“It’s good for us to kind of explode sometimes as a country. I think I would have considered voting for Bernie Sanders. If I was voting between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton I think I probably would have voted Bernie Sanders because it’s an opportunity to kind of flip the table.”

His desire for something, anything different is almost greater than his support of Trump. Almost.

Read more from our Virginia Votes series.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Jacob Thayer was a member of Austin's city council. He was never a member of city council, but worked for a member of city council.