Americans watching November's historic Senate elections will be flooded with figures during the coming months: Poll numbers. Fundraising reports. Party registration percentages. Past margins of victory. Odds from Las Vegas bookmakers. Does it really take an accounting degree to figure out which party has the advantage?
If you want to predict the outcome without the aid of a graphing calculator, remember just one number: 65. That's Highway 65, the north-south roadway that runs through Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri, the major geographic focus for the GOP this year. Almost every place it touches has a hot Senate race. It may lack the glamor of Route 66, but this year, at least, Highway 65 is America's unofficial political barometer.
There will be other close races, of course. The Senate contests in New Hampshire, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Dakota are all looking like squeakers. But Republicans need to pick up just one Democratic seat to regain control of the Senate, and no other part of the country boasts a greater concentration of vulnerable Democrats than this northern part of the Highway 65 corridor. Both national parties are putting millions of dollars behind their candidates, and voters in all three states have already seen a flurry of expensive TV ads more than eight months before Election Day. In addition, President Bush and some of his top aides are making the region a kind of second home.
But how is it all playing out on the ground? Are voters paying attention? Do they really care who controls the Senate in far-off Washington? Are they more focused on national issues like terrorism, or statewide concerns like education and unemployment? A week-long drive along Highway 65 provided some answers.
For much of its long run through Minnesota, 65 is just a narrow state road wending its way through vast stretches of pine forest. The highway originates at the Canadian border near International Falls, the city that holds the dubious distinction of being the coldest spot in the United States during much of the winter. Because Minnesota was in the throes of a spring blizzard when I arrived, I started my trek several hundred miles to the south, in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
With 54 percent of the state's population, the Twin Cities wield inordinate political clout. It's nearly impossible to gain statewide office without a solid political base among the quirky, reform-minded voters of Minneapolis. That's why Republicans are so excited about their prospects this year. After heavy recruiting by the Bush administration, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman threw his hat into the ring, scaring off any potential GOP rivals. He's a former Democrat with a face made for television and a record that appeals to independents. (This is the state, remember, where Jesse Ventura came out of nowhere to beat both a Republican and a Democrat in the governor's race.)
Mr. Coleman's rival is Paul Wellstone, one of the most liberal lawmakers in Washington. Winding up his second term in the Senate, he broke his earlier term-limits promise and announced he wanted another six years. That has even many of his former backers, like Bill Anderson, wondering if they'll vote for him again.
Mr. Anderson and his wife both voted for Mr. Wellstone in 1996, but are reconsidering this year. "I'm not a Coleman fan, but he has some good ideas. He's done a pretty good job over in St. Paul," says Mr. Anderson as he sits in the parking lot of the Fridley VFW post. It's one hour until the Saturday afternoon meat raffle, and the low, red-brick building is getting crowded. Politics isn't the first topic of conversation, but Minnesotans are famous for being informed on the issues. One question is likely to yield 15 minutes of political opinions.
Veterans' issues top Mr. Anderson's list of concerns, and he thinks President Bush is doing a fine job as commander in chief. The president's sky-high approval numbers may not help with loyal Democrats, but independent voters are skeptical of lawmakers like Sen. Wellstone who oppose Mr. Bush on almost every issue. "He's way out in left field," Mr. Anderson says. "We need someone new altogether. I'm not sure Coleman is the best guy, but he may be better than what we have now."
Down the road at the Columbia Golf Course, the glass-and-steel skyline of Minneapolis provides a dramatic backdrop to the gentle hills that seem ready-made for sledding. Jeff Johnson, a 17-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department's narcotics squad, is keeping a watchful eye on three young children. He doesn't consider himself a Republican: "I don't care for either party. I vote on the person who's running." But this year the choice is easy: "Anybody but Wellstone. He needs to go. He's been an embarrassment from day one. Enough of his giveaway policies-letting all the refugees in here, all his welfare stuff. I was taught, you don't work, you don't eat."
That's a sentiment that may spell trouble for Mr. Wellstone come November. Minnesota notched the country's fastest-growing black population over the past decade, and its overall minority population has doubled in that time. The state's Nordic identity seems at risk, even among many blue-collar workers who might normally vote Democratic.
But exploiting such sentiments is risky. A few dozen yards away from Mr. Johnson, an extended Mexican family is also enjoying the snow. The best hills are taken by the white kids, and the Hispanic families are wary of encroaching. Diego, who refuses to give his last name, says he's heard the talk of government giveaways, and it makes him mad.
"Nobody gives me anything," he says, as his wife tries to keep the children away. "I working two jobs. My wife, she working also. We hope our children will be rich one day. This is why we come to America." Diego says his friends will all vote for Mr. Wellstone, whom they view as a friend. "The other people, they wish we just go away."
Further south, on the Iowa state line, the little town of Albert Lea hasn't seen much of an immigrant influx. The membership rolls at Elks Lodge 813 still read like the Stockholm phone book: Stensrud, Bjerke, Dillemuth, Overgaard. But even here, Mr. Wellstone's giveaway reputation is well established.
The senator "wants to give everything away," says Bob Herman, a local businessman. "He wants to give $100,000 to immigrants to help them settle in. Our party changed a lot. I used to be a Democrat, now I vote for the man."
Mr. Herman says many farmers are wary of Sen. Wellstone, but as a big-city mayor, Mr. Coleman can't automatically count on their votes. "He did a lot for the city of St. Paul, but he's got a little work to do in agricultural communities like Albert Lea." While the local farm economy is fairly stable, "no one's getting ahead," and farmers often feel overlooked in politics. "Two-thirds of the population lives in the Twin Cities," Mr. Herman complains, an exaggeration that betrays an us-versus-them mentality that may prevent the Republicans from generating much enthusiasm among rural voters.
In Iowa, by contrast, no politician would dare overlook the farmers. The state's 90,000 farms produce crops and livestock valued at $12 billion annually-the lifeblood of Iowa's economy. All those farmers have helped send Tom Harkin to the Senate for 18 years, and, as chairman of the powerful Agriculture Committee, he's in the perfect position to repay them for their support.
Still, Republicans see a chance to pick up this seat in a state that went for Al Gore by just 4,000 votes in the 2000 presidential race. The national party has anointed Greg Ganske, a moderate congressman first elected in 1994's "Republican Revolution" as its last, best hope to carry this swing state.
Unfortunately for Washington's power brokers, Bill Salier didn't seem to get that memo. The 33-year-old former Marine farms 300 acres just off Highway 65, near the northern Iowa town of Mason City. While the National Republican Senatorial Committee pretends Mr. Ganske is the only Republican in the race, Mr. Salier has been quietly shaking tens of thousands of hands around the state for nearly two years now. By his own reckoning, he's slept in his own bed just 14 nights since last Thanksgiving.
"The NRSC has no idea what's actually going on here in Iowa.... They're going with the conventional wisdom that we need to nominate a moderate against a liberal. That doesn't work. There's no incentive for Reagan Democrats to come back. There's no inspiration for independents. Elections follow when you lead on principle."
With his intense blue eyes, slightly graying buzz cut, and erect bearing, Mr. Salier looks like a Marine out of Central Casting. Still, it's clear that he's no professional politician. He's delivering his anti-establishment speech from the Formica-topped table in his pea-green kitchen while his mother stands nearby, peeling potatoes over the sink. Yet even in this odd setting, he articulates his conservative principles with passion, and some in Washington have begun to notice. Conservative groups like the NRA, Eagle Forum, Club for Growth, and Campaign for Working Families have all met with him recently, and some have toyed publicly with the idea of endorsing him.
Despite Mr. Salier's two years of almost non-stop campaigning, Edith Butler admits she doesn't know much about Mr. Salier. The small, older lady in a pink cardigan and mousy blond wig is on duty today at the Buggy Whip Antique Mall in Iowa Falls, about an hour south of Mason City. Highway 65 slices right through the picturesque little town with the decidedly '50s feel (no parking meters, no Starbucks, a wooden band shell that looms over the little public square).
The major issue around here? "Hog farming," Mrs. Butler answers without a moment's hesitation. Specifically, the locals are up in arms about giant commercial hog farms that produce tons of solid waste, which stinks up the air for miles around, might seep into the water supply, and certainly drives down property values.
As a small hog farmer himself, Mr. Salier could easily tap into this frustration, except that regulating the big commercial farms might conflict with his pro-business instincts. So, until convinced otherwise, Mrs. Butler plans to vote for Mr. Ganske. And what about the incumbent, Tom Harkin? "He's all talk," she replies. "He promises a lot, but he never really does anything."
The general opinion about Mr. Harkin tends to be different around Des Moines, the state's largest city. Just outside town, the grandly named Adventureland Resort-really just a small collection of aging roller coasters-sits at the intersection of Highway 65 and I-80. Next door is the red-roofed Prairie Downs Racetrack and Casino. Two men headed into the casino talk about conditions at "the plant," but they won't give their names. (It's 3:30 on a Monday; maybe they've left work early.)
They both think Mr. Harkin is doing a fine job. They list education, health care, and pension benefits as their main concerns, and they want the federal government more involved in all three. Would they consider voting for Mr. Ganske, who tends to support big-government solutions like a patients' bill of rights and campaign-finance reform? "Why would we support a semi-Democrat when we've already got the real thing?" laughs one.
Missouri has major cities on both its eastern and western flanks, but Highway 65 misses them both by a long shot. The small towns along its route seem distinctively and surprisingly Southern, from the twang in the vowels to the tunes on the radio. Crossing the state line into north-central Missouri, my car stereo picks up a dozen country music stations, and Alan Jackson's ode to 9/11 seems to be in constant play somewhere on the dial.
In an odd way, that could spell trouble for the Democrats here. Their standard-bearer, freshman Sen. Jean Carnahan, has never actually faced the voters. Her husband, Mel, the state's popular governor, was locked in a bitter campaign with then-Sen. John Ashcroft when his small plane went down in a thunderstorm, less than a month before the election. Missouri's shocked voters elected him anyway, but only after Mrs. Carnahan agreed to serve in his stead.
When she got to Washington, one of her first duties was to vote on Mr. Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general. She voted no. That struck many Missourians as petty, especially after Mr. Ashcroft had graciously conceded the race rather than mount a legal challenge to the constitutionality of electing a dead man. Then came Sept. 11, and Mr. Ashcroft became perhaps the highest-profile attorney general in history. Suddenly, Mrs. Carnahan's "no" vote seemed not only petty, but vaguely unpatriotic.
Pat Greeley, a waitress at the Country Kitchen restaurant in Chillicothe, says she voted for Mr(s). Carnahan largely out of sympathy. But now her sympathies are shifting. "He was always a good senator," she confides during a slow breakfast shift. "It's not like people around here were voting against him. It was more like sending a sympathy card to the governor's wife, you know?"
But if Mr. Ashcroft was popular as a senator, he's downright heroic as attorney general. "I'm so proud of the way he's defending us," Ms. Greeley says. "We all feel like we're in good hands with him and President Bush in Washington." She pauses and shakes her head. "So then you start to wonder: What if Jean Carnahan had her way? He wouldn't even be there right now. Makes you wonder about her judgment, you know?"
Up and down the state, the names of John Ashcroft and Jean Carnahan are paired that way, as if 2002 were a rematch of the 2000 race. Actually, though, the likely Republican nominee is Jim Talent, a conservative former congressman who narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid after sympathy for Mr. Carnahan spilled over into his race two years ago.
Mr. Talent is an able campaigner with enthusiastic support from the Bush White House, but running against Mrs. Carnahan won't be easy. "How do you campaign against a widow?" wonders Bill Thomas as he loads fishing gear into the trunk of his car. Like many other voters in Springfield, he calls himself "conservative and proud of it." Springfield, after all, was Mr. Ashcroft's political base, and the Assemblies of God denomination is headquartered in this southern Missouri city.
"No one has any idea what Jean Carnahan stands for or what she's done for them as a senator," Mr. Thomas continues. "But voting against her would be like voting against your own grandmother. It's tough to run against Grandma, especially if she keeps reminding everyone how much she misses Grandpa."
Immigrants in Minnesota, hog farms in Iowa, "Grandma" in Missouri-the issues along Highway 65 may not be statistically representative, but they illustrate how different politics can be once candidates venture outside the Beltway that rings Washington, D.C. Republicans desperately need at least one win here to regain control of the Senate, but where they might pick it up is anybody's guess. Along the campaign trail-as on Highway 65 itself-there are plenty of dangerous curves ahead.