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In the Heartland

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Sean Duffy bringing the ax to Washington in a 2010 campaign ad

Over in the Wisconsin Seventh, a sprawling district in the northwest quadrant of the state, Sean Duffy, a Republican who first made his name as a performer on a reality TV show on MTV and a champion lumberjack, won a seat that the veteran David Obey had held for twenty-one consecutive terms, getting 52 percent of the vote where Obama had received 56. In their TV spots in 2010, Schilling was shown twirling a huge disc of pizza dough (his trade secret, I can disclose, is that he puts molasses in the dough); Duffy, hanging sideways from a tree, took an ax to Washington waste. Each is a practicing Catholic. Schilling has ten children, Duffy six.

Now the two freshmen are high on the list of Republicans targeted by Democratic strategists. If seats like theirs in traditionally Democratic strongholds can’t be reclaimed, the party can forget about taking back the House. Neither of these freshmen figures to be a pushover, though Obama may well win both districts again. Their pitch to their voters won’t be that they stood shoulder to shoulder with the other Republican freshmen against all jobs programs emanating from the White House to be financed by higher taxes on millionaires. It will be that they were effective congressmen for their districts, fighting for jobs and special projects they and their colleagues once derided as “earmarks.”

“I’m not afraid of going up against my party, against the leadership,” Schilling said on a recent visit to Rockford, a normally Democratic town with the worst employment figures in Illinois that has just been shifted into his redrawn district by the legislature in order to make his path to reelection a little steeper. When I asked him for an example of his independence, he mentioned his two votes against the Patriot Act on grounds that it infringed on constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures (votes subsequently reversed after “pushback” from the leadership and a special intelligence briefing).

Chatting up potential Rockford supporters, Schilling described himself as “man of the center” (then paused and speaking sotto voce made it “center-right.”) His campaign seized on a National Journal ranking that listed him as the 194th “most conservative” member of the House to observe that this put him “right in the middle.” The Seventeenth leans Democratic but is generally conservative on social issues, witness the fact that it gave all its delegates to Rick Santorum in the Republican primary. Finding its sweet spot in a general election—“center” or “center-right”—can be a challenge.

“I’ve done what’s best for my constituents, not what’s best for my party,” Representative Duffy similarly declared in a Wisconsin television interview recently, ticking off bills he’d introduced to freeze congressional salaries and ban insider trading by House members. It may not matter that this flurry of legislative activity didn’t produce statutes. He came across as alert, independent, and fair-minded, especially when he deplored spending by lobbyists and Super PACs in races like his own. “Super PACs are a great example of where the light doesn’t shine,” he said.

He mentioned an ad that had been used against him—but not an early buy in his district by the US Chamber of Commerce hammering “Obamacare” as a killer of jobs. “Thankfully,” the commercial says, “Sean Duffy is fighting to repeal Obamacare and save Wisconsin jobs.”

Such occasional shots are just a prelude to the sustained artillery barrages to come as the campaign heats up. Both sides will claim to be fighting for jobs—through targeted programs and incentives on the Democratic side, through the further easing of taxes on private “job creators” on the Republican—but as the early Chamber of Commerce ad shows, health reform will figure in the debate. If the Democrats ever imagined that the new law would solidify their support among middle-class voters, they were proved wrong in 2010. Sean Duffy and other insurgent candidates made effective use of the argument that the new health regime masked a transfer of benefits from Medicare for seniors to the previously uninsured.

Once the freshmen reached Washington, they handed Democrats ammunition on Medicare for the coming election by voting in favor of a plan by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to control spiraling costs by converting the program into a voucher system. This time around, realizing that the contests may turn in part on which side is able to create the most anxiety over the future of Medicare, the Democrats won’t be caught flat-footed. But it’s far from clear that they’ll be able to turn “Obamacare” into an asset. The program won’t come into full force for another two years and in the meantime, health care premiums have gone up across the board (except for applicants with “pre-existing conditions,” who can no longer be turned away by insurance companies, and young people who can be carried on their parents’ policies up to the age of twenty-six, benefits that have yet to be widely understood or embraced).

On the basis of a recent poll, USA Today concluded that health care reform was still a vote-loser for Obama and his party. In swing states, the poll reported, 53 percent of registered voters said it had been a “bad thing” as opposed to 38 percent ready to call it a “good thing.” Asked if they favored repeal, 53 percent said yes; 40 percent no.

Endangered Republican freshmen like Schilling and Duffy say they favor repealing the health care statute the Democrats rammed through Congress before they came to town and replacing it with a program that will do away with “big government” mandates and new taxes, yet contain costs and protect seniors. They are willing to leave it up to the battered candidate who emerges from the presidential primary brawls to say how. The task, it now seems likely, will fall to the author of “Romneycare,” who has shown his readiness to repudiate his own record on health care issues. It remains to be seen how aggressively Obama himself will fly in the face of poll numbers and make the case for his biggest domestic achievement.

So far he has had little help from whiny liberals who have spent two years complaining about the program’s flaws, or that it came too soon, at the expense of a bigger stimulus package, favored on Keynesian grounds by prominent economists. For the Obama White House and the Democratic leadership, the question wasn’t what size stimulus would be most effective but how much they could shove through Congress—and how fast—with an economy already hemorrhaging jobs. From the right they were hit with the argument that every dollar they spent was worsening a “debt crisis”; from the left, confronted with the resurrected figure of Lyndon Johnson who would have known, according to suddenly nostalgic liberals too young to remember him or his circumstances, how to muscle a bigger stimulus through a recalcitrant Congress in the age of Fox and Twitter (forgetting that Johnson reigned in an era when a complacent press felt some obligation to give space and weight to what a president said as if it might matter).

Whatever the current media say, the campaign is likely to end in a crescendo of unsettling, even frightening, negative sound bites and ads.

“We have a little bit of a branding and marketing deficit compared to the Republicans,” said Cheri Bustos, Representative Schilling’s Democratic opponent. A former newspaper reporter and director of communications for a private health care company that manages twenty-seven hospitals in the region, she knows all the arguments about the pending health care regime but knows too that many of them are too intricate to be used effectively in a campaign. Her task, as she sees it, is to connect to the experience of likely voters. This she does by talking about her family’s struggle to pay for expensive drugs that seemed the last hope to save a brother dying from cancer; or the hypertension of her husband, a deputy sheriff in Rock Island, which could have been considered a preexisting condition by their health plan.

Her opponent, the pizza man who went to Washington like the Jimmy Stewart character in the Frank Capra film, can seem shaky on policy but makes such connections instinctively. He talks about his experience building his small business and even nailing together the timbers of his own house. It wasn’t a call from on high that brought Schilling into politics but candidate Obama’s remark in 2008 to a would-be businessman who came to be known as Joe the Plumber. “When you spread the wealth around,” Obama said, “it’s good for everybody.” The pizza proprietor recalls having heard this as an ultimate threat. All that he had worked for, he felt, could be given away.

When it comes to gritty policy questions, Schilling still has a tendency to misremember statistics and speak in half-sentences as if waiting for his constituents to complete his thoughts. His greatest assets, when he’s out in his district, are his ability to listen in an unhurried manner—sympathetically, or opportunistically, or both—and to work long days as he did in his restaurant.

Crucial to the congressman’s candidacy and, it seems, sense of himself is his insistence that he’s still an outsider in Washington. His opponent has lived her entire adult life in the district but he finds a way of suggesting that she is beholden to outside forces, notably Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the majority whip, who, Schilling says at every stop, “hand-picked” her to run against him. Sometimes he mentions that Durbin is her “godfather” as if this were a fact, not a metaphor. “Uncle Al is my godfather,” Bustos replies, shaking her head. “There are two Bobby Schillings,” the Democrat says. “The one in Washington casting votes hurtful to the district and the one who sends out mailings portraying him as battling for seniors.”

Before visiting the Illinois Seventeenth, I wondered whether I’d find any prospective voters who backed both Obama in 2008 and Bobby Schilling in 2010. Doing some doorbell ringing on a chilly Sunday afternoon in Moline, I finally found one, a woman in her thirties who said she worked in “human resources.” Even now she didn’t seem to be aware of any contradiction in her voting choices. “I figured Bobby Schilling was a local business owner,” she said. “I thought he had common sense.” Across the street I met another Obama supporter, a retired woman, who said: “Bobby Schilling? I don’t know if he’s a Democrat or a Republican.”

Minutes later, on the same street, I met a woman who had moved in with her mother, an Alzheimer’s sufferer. She was now working as a cook at the airport to pay the taxes and the mortgage on her mother’s house. I asked whether she thought the health care plan had any bearing on her mother’s situation. The question had occurred to her, she said, and she might look into it. But the family had always voted Republican and she was sure she’d do the same whatever she learned about the new law. I noted that this Republican was wearing a T-shirt that said Red Sox in what might be considered White Sox territory. “I bought it at Goodwill Industries,” she explained.

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