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In the Heartland

Random and inconclusive as they were, my encounters that afternoon were a reminder that for all the intensity with which the new media follow the twisting “narrative” of the unfolding campaign through its earliest stages, much of the electorate—potentially the part that will decide the outcome—has yet to pay close attention. The Democrats I met backed Obama in an uncomplicated way. They didn’t say they were “disappointed” the way the chattering classes on the coasts often do. They were simply for him. “I don’t think the guy has had enough time to fix the mess,” said the occupant of a house flying the largest American flag on the block who turned out to be an AT&T lineman. The Republicans were simply against him; only one, a retired schoolteacher, infused her comments with a trace of the venom that spills over at Tea Party rallies. “When he was elected, I said to myself, ‘How much damage can he do?’ Now,” she said, with plenty of emphasis, “we’ve seen how much.”

The political pulse was beating more strongly over in the Wisconsin Seventh on account of a drive to recall Governor Scott Walker and several Republican state senators who can be portrayed as having provided the margin for his successful push to circumscribe collective bargaining rights of public employee unions and slash their benefits. The struggle, now into its second year, will culminate in an election to recall Walker in early June. Whatever the outcome, voters in the state will have been subjected to months of clamorous political advertising at saturation levels before the national campaign gets underway in earnest in September, a prolonged sociopolitical experiment that may render them insensate or permanently furious. In their 2010 sweep, Republicans took the statehouse and legislature and denied Senator Russ Feingold, a liberal maverick, the fourth term he was seeking. Since the state had gone Democratic in six straight presidential elections, this seemed to represent buyer’s remorse on a seismic scale. Yet recent polls show Obama now positioned to make it seven straight for his party in Wisconsin.

How all this turmoil will affect congressional races in the state is anyone’s guess. “Both sides can confidently say today, ‘We’ve got 47 percent of the vote,’” said Pat Kreitlow, the energetic Democrat challenging Sean Duffy. “That leaves 6 to 8 percent of the population fiercely or passionately disconnected.” How to cut through all the advertising “clutter” to underscore for uncommitted independents the basic differences between himself—a former broadcaster and state senator attempting to bounce back from a defeat in the 2010 debacle—and the freshman Republican is the major tactical question he now has to mull: how best, that is, to contrast the Republican congressman’s claims of independence with the record of his votes in solidarity with the rest of his class.

Representative Duffy points to his vote for funding National Public Radio to show he can break ranks. At the same time, he makes a case for the freshmen Republicans, saying they’ve focused the country on the “debt crisis” and given their caucus “a little more of a backbone.” Responding to my hypothetical question, Duffy said he could hang onto his seat if Obama were to carry his district by a margin of 52 to 48 percent, maybe even 53 to 47. “I’ve a level of heart and passion that I’ve put into this job and that shows through to people,” he said, speaking with the sort of conviction a candidate has to have.

Driving around a neighborhood in the town of Wausau that former Congressman Obey mentioned as one friendly to Democrats, I stopped on an impulse at a house that had an “I Stand With Walker” placard on the lawn and an “Impeach Obama” sticker on the red pickup truck in its driveway. There I got a lesson in the mysterious happenstance of individual voting decisions—each, examined closely enough, as distinctive as a fingerprint—from Jeremy Dodd, a purchasing agent in a small electric supply company. Dodd says he voted for Dave Obey, the veteran Democratic congressman, several times but now gets all his news and many of his views from Foxnews.com, which he turns to about six times a day.

He and his wife have both faced serious cuts in recent years. His employer reduced the company’s contribution to his health security account by half. The Catholic day care center where his wife works as a teacher cut her hours and canceled the staff discount the Dodds used to get on their children’s tuition. He has no retirement account and, working for a small local business, no real job security beyond the goodwill of his boss. So he’s outraged—not at his employer, not at the church, but at the public employee unions that have been battling the government in Madison to retain rights and benefits he has never had and can’t expect.

“We’ve all had to make sacrifices,” he says. “If the state can’t pay for it, we need to cut back.” Governor Walker’s argument makes perfect sense to him. He doesn’t want to see Wisconsin go the way of California and Illinois with their crushing debts. In his mind, he now groups the unions with the AIG officers who collected huge bonuses after their failing insurance company had been propped up with billions supplied by taxpayers; and he groups the president who allowed that to happen with the Democrats now campaigning to remove Walker.

He feels these issues intensely but took no interest in the Republican presidential debates, didn’t watch them for a minute. And Sean Duffy, his congressman, is little more than a name to him. He recalls voting for Duffy two years ago but hasn’t kept track of him since. All issues associated with health care are “definitely difficult” but something must be done about the debt. The gridlock in Washington is terrible: “Nobody agrees, nobody wants to meet in the middle.”

It’s not an incoherent or contradictory point of view. It’s also not fully formed and doesn’t conform perfectly to any voter profile. A psephologist might pigeonhole Jeremy Dodd as an angry white guy, a so-called Reagan Democrat. But his votes for Obey and his hesitation on health care show it’s not that simple. He’ll vote against the recall of Governor Walker and against Obama. Then maybe he’ll think about the House race. Or not.

—March 29, 2012

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