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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.

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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.

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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    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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