Branson, Mo., is GOP's Answer to Hollywood

Friday, 12 Oct 2007 08:39 PM

By Clayton B. Reid

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Country-entertainment mecca Branson, Mo., is becoming the GOP's answer to Hollywood when it comes to raising big bucks from the entertainment community.

Presidential hopefuls have found their own little slice of hillbilly heaven nestled in the foothills of the Ozarks.

Branson serves up its politics the same way its restaurants serve up food -- down-home, country-style, and unapologetically old-fashioned.

Here you'll find no Barbra Streisands, Jane Fondas, or other denizens of Tinseltown's left-leaning elite. Branson entertainer and theater owner Jim Stafford calls it “families entertaining families,”

From the flags draping Highway 76 to the stars and stripes lavishly splashed on virtually every surface of the 52 theaters that feature more than 100 live shows on the neon-heavy Branson strip, candidates running on traditional-values themes can see they're more than merely welcome.

“Branson is the Republicans’ Hollywood,” Dr. Fred Pfister, author of Insiders’ Guide to Branson and the Ozark Mountains, tells Newsmax. “It is a conservative family area and a stronghold of the Christian right. Republicans court Branson -- they feel right at home here.”

That helps to explain why little Branson, population 7,435, has become a must-visit destination for those who would like to be more than tourists at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

About 8 million tourists visit family-friendly Branson annually, and in an election year the GOP presidential hopefuls are sure to be among them.

Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee broke ground as the first national candidate to appear in Branson, speaking at a fundraiser at the home of Charlie and Scottie Earls, owners of the Vacation Channel, in August.

Another presidential contender, Fred Thompson, is reportedly headed there soon.

“I don’t think a major Democratic candidate is planning to visit Branson,” Ron Houseman, secretary of the Taney County Republican Committee and county clerk for 20 years, tells Newsmax. “This is a bastion of Republican strength for the state.

“Presidential candidates know that, and it is a safe assumption on their part that they will not carry this area, so they should more wisely spend their time and resources elsewhere where they have a better opportunity of winning.”

Some of the money flowing into Republican coffers comes from name entertainers who have made a home in Branson, located 35 miles south of Springfield, Mo.

Branson Japanese fiddle whiz and theater owner Shoji Tabuchi, for example, has contributed $2,000 to the Republican National Committee (RNC) this year. Country singer and Branson entertainer Larry Gatlin, a longtime supporter of Republican causes, gave $500 to the RNC. Entertainer Andy Williams, a Branson fixture, gave $4,600 to Sen. John McCain’s run for office.

“The Christian right has a strong foothold in Branson,” Dr. Pfister says, “and conservative and Christian themes are quite popular here. The local newspaper features a column by conservative political activist Phyllis Schlafly, and the local College of the Ozarks, a Christian school, prides itself on attracting conservative speakers.

GOP candidate Mitt Romney also has done well in Branson, which Pfister attributes to Romney's image as a strong family-values candidate.

Tourists flock to Branson to view a Disney-esque view of America as it once was, although it would hardly serve as representative. The most recent census notes a strong racial imbalance, with 94.5 percent white, about 4.26 percent Hispanic, only 0.8 percent black, and roughly 0.8 percent Native Americans.

However, Houseman says, things may be changing, with retirees from Chicago and elsewhere moving there, bringing more Democratic leanings.

“Certainly, there are more Democrats than there have been in the past. And Branson may change,” Houseman adds. "But I think we Republicans have a way to balance that out. Those of us who grew up here will just have to move to Hollywood!”

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