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In the Heartland

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Mitt Romney surrounded by Secret Service agents while posing with Representative Bobby Schilling and his wife, Christie Schilling, in Moline, Illinois, March 18, 2012

The class of freshman Republicans that swept into the House of Representatives at the start of 2011 followed a decisive shift of voter sentiment over Barack Obama’s seeming failure to master the economic crisis he inherited. Ever since, it has typically been portrayed as a disciplined force of Tea Party ideologues sworn to resist any compromise acceptable to the tax-and-spend liberal, or leftist, or socialist—the epithets tended to escalate—illegitimately occupying the White House.

Now, as the eighty-seven freshmen Republicans—who account for more than one third of their party’s 242 seats in the House—prepare to face the voters in November, bearing both the advantages and burdens of incumbency, the picture of intransigence they’ve drawn of themselves will present no problem for those in right-leaning districts; in other words, most of them. But in a campaign that still has seven months to run, just enough seats will be up for grabs to make the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s rosy claim that the party is edging into a position to take back the House appear wishful, dubious, but not altogether outside the realm of the possible.*

The relentless, rat-a-tat “conversation” that fills the twenty-four-hour news cycle bears so heavily on the presidential race that it’s easy to forget the depth of the hole the Democrats dug for themselves two years ago when the Republican share of the vote for all House seats soared to 52 percent. For the Republicans, this was “their best showing since the election of 1946,” the psephologist—the fancy term for analysts of polls and elections—Michael Barone tells us in the introduction to the latest edition of the biennial manual he has been editing for four decades. It’s a useful reminder to Democrats that happy days won’t necessarily be here again if the incumbent hangs onto the White House, as the trends in most of the recent polls seem, for the moment at least, to foretell.

By itself, Obama’s reelection wouldn’t be enough to break the stalemate that has existed on the seemingly immutable issues of debt, revenue, and entitlements, with taxes on the wealthy and on corporations that keep their profits offshore as the most visible flash points of discord (not to mention all the currently shelved issues surrounding climate change and the environment). What happens to the freshmen Republicans in Speaker John Boehner’s and Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s House—whether they retain their seats and discipline—will also be telling. If enough of them survive, the stalemate could just drag on.

The president’s reelection—itself no sure thing—would have an obvious bearing on the survival of “Obamacare,” as the Republicans cunningly rebranded the landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act almost as soon as it was finally passed in March 2010, and on the future makeup of what’s already the most conservative Supreme Court since the 1930s. But it’s less than obvious that an Obama victory would do much to advance some version of the “grand bargain” on economic policy that the president failed to strike with House Republicans last summer, the sort of bipartisan, supposedly pragmatic, at least doable compromise most Americans are supposed to want.

In practice, Americans don’t always vote for what they say they want. They balance their fears against their hopes. In the forty years since Richard Nixon won reelection by a landslide in 1972, only one president has been returned to office with both houses of Congress under the nominal control of his own party. Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton fell short of that goal. George W. Bush in 2004 got there, an advantage he soon squandered.

Given this history and the cozy forty-nine-seat margin Republicans now enjoy in the House, Barack Obama can hardly count on seeing the Speaker’s gavel restored to Nancy Pelosi next year. At least as likely is the possibility that our divided government could become even more divided. Nonpartisan prognosticators consider the Democratic majority in the Senate imperiled if only because fewer Republican seats there are on the line in this cycle.

As a matter of logic, which doesn’t count for much in politics, it’s possible that the messy spectacle of the Republican presidential contest—with all its pseudorighteousness, pandering, and on-target assaults on the character of the presumptive winner—will have wrecked enough damage on candidates whose names are followed by an (R) to upset such calculations and drag down some of the House freshmen in marginal seats. But by November, Super Tuesday will be ancient history and the freshmen candidates for Congress will have had more than half a year to find new ways to tell their story. Some of them are already trying, tacking to the center, or claiming to have been there all along.

The 2012 edition of The Almanac of American Politics, which seeks to be to congressional politics what the Racing Form is to ponies, makes it possible to look at this least-known Republican subspecies, the House freshmen, on a district-by-district basis. Seen in that perspective, rather than as a bloc, they’re a surprisingly motley bunch bearing, in most cases, only a passing resemblance to the aroused white—and, for the most part, graying—homeowners who enlisted in the tax revolt that lay at the heart of the Tea Party insurgency.

At least fifty of the eighty-seven representatives elected for their first term in 2010 were already in the political game as former officeholders, candidates, and legislative staffers, on the lookout for a chance to run. But they weren’t all cast in the same mold. According to my count, based on the Almanac, five of the freshmen had the gumption to declare they support a woman’s right to choose. One openly favored a repeal of the ban on gays in the military. At least three beat Tea Party candidates in primaries. Another, a Virginia car dealer, acknowledged making a $1,000 contribution to Barack Obama in 2008. Twenty-six of them—the most vulnerable—won traditionally Democratic districts Obama carried in 2008, mostly by comfortable margins. Few of these Republicans, whatever their actual roll-call votes in the House, are likely to base their reelection pitches on their fealty to Tea Party values or their consistent nay-saying on Obama programs. In all, according to Politico, only fifteen of the eighty-seven ever enlisted in Michele Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus.

The Almanac typically offers up three small-print pages on each district, packed with statistics and sidelights on the local economy, demography, recent elections, chatty bios of the incumbents, their embarrassing missteps, boundary changes due to reapportionment, and campaign spending. The insurgent Republicans who ousted incumbent Democrats in 2008 were usually outspent.

Now, as incumbents themselves, they’re likely to have the funding edge, but with the advent of Super PACs—political action committees supposedly beyond the control of the candidates—dollars in unprecedented amounts will be sloshing around on both sides, paying for attack ads in the sixty or so districts, out of a total of 435, deemed to be seriously in play. In the most contested districts, consultants calculate, total spending may be double the appalling levels attained just two years ago.

Michael Barone, the Almanac’s founding editor, still heading the project in conjunction with the National Journal, leads a double life as a conservative think-tanker and columnist for The Washington Examiner. His regular commentary is unmistakably more sympathetic to Republicans, not excluding the Tea Party, than the Obama administration whose spirit he likens, pretentiously, to that of “Tocqueville’s France” as compared to what he considers the more authentically American ethos of the Tea Party, which reminds him of “Tocqueville’s America”—an analogy that turns Obama into the self-promoted monarch Louis Philippe. But Barone’s invaluable compendium stays close to the ground. It isn’t easily faulted for slapdash or one-sided commentary.

What it offers is a mosaic, not a landscape. It’s the small, sometimes peculiar, spectacularly all-American details that leap out. We’re introduced, for instance, to Representative Stephen Fincher, a gospel singer from Frog Jump, Tennessee, who ran on the slogan “Plow Congress,” defeating a conservative Democrat who vainly vowed, “No one will out-God me, no one will outgun me.” Sam Clemens! thou should’st be living at this hour.

We discover that among the twenty-three freshmen Republicans who attributed their candidacies in 2010 wholly or in part to the debate over health reform, there were four doctors (including a Johns Hopkins anesthesiologist), one dentist, and two nurses (one of whom, Diane Black, wife of a toxicologist who leads a forensic sciences company in Tennessee, is reported here to have a net worth of $49 million). And one of the two black Republican freshmen, Allen West of Florida, a retired military officer, came to the fore by calling Obama “the dumbest person walking around in America right now.”

Then there’s the former Philadelphia Eagles’ lineman Jon Runyan, once voted “the second-dirtiest player in the NFL” in a Sports Illustrated poll. Or the Kansas Republican Mike Pompeo, who finished first in his class at West Point, then led a tank platoon before going to Harvard Law School on his way to becoming a Williams & Connolly tax lawyer. Or Ben Quayle of Arizona, son of the former vice-president, whose campaign brochure illustrated his support for family values by showing him and his wife with two children who had to be borrowed, we learn, because the Quayles were childless.

And that’s not to mention the caucus intellectuals who cite the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek as their guiding light, the two funeral directors, the former rodeo rider, and the freshman from a Chicago suburb elected on a platform of fiscal responsibility, then charged with being an alimony deadbeat. It’s clear that this 2010 freshman class did not come off an assembly line for candidates. If it has learned to march in lockstep, that’s an acquired skill.

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Mike King

Evangelical Christians in the class seem to be no more conspicuous than religiously engaged Catholics but one stands out: Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, author of a nuts-and-bolts “how to” book for faith-driven, first-time candidates called Running God’s Way, in which she describes the call she received to plunge into politics. Singing a familiar hymn in church one Sunday, she heard a line “as if for the first time” and took it as a sign. The words went, Draw me unto you and let us run together. “Wise candidates,” she writes, “will spend time with God before filing the candidate papers…. Whom God calls, He enables.”

Inspired by such examples and hoping to get a feel for the emerging campaign, I recently ventured into a couple of Midwest districts (see map) that Barack Obama swept in 2008 only to see them flip to Republican candidates for Congress who welcomed Tea Party backing in 2010. Obama took the Seventeenth Illinois Congressional District that then snaked through central and western parts of the state with a hardy 57 percent of the vote. Two years later Bobby Schilling, the proprietor of Saint Giuseppe’s Heavenly Pizza in the Mississippi River town of Moline, made his debut race and, to the amazement of GOP professionals, pulled in 53 percent, ousting an incumbent Democrat from a seat no Republican had held for nearly three decades.

  1. *

    The latest estimate of The Rothenberg Political Report is that Democrats stand to gain five to twelve seats in the House of Representatives. They need a minimum of twenty-five to regain control. 

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