SOUTH BEND, Ind., DEERFIELD, Ill., and STEVENS POINT, Wisc.-It is not surprising that you'd find an Irish pub in South Bend, Ind., just down the road from the Fighting Irish at the University of Notre Dame. But it is somewhat unique that Peter Wallace turns one corner of the Fiddler's Hearth into his pastoral office for a weekly "Pastor in the Pub" session.
Wallace, who leads the city's Michiana Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA), holds informal office hours here for four hours every Tuesday. Anyone is welcome-you don't have to be a church member. Wallace believes that "a little bit of beer helps the lessons go down."
The pastor admits that sometimes it doesn't take more than a pint or two of ale before the pub discussions turn political-especially this year with an open Senate seat in Indiana that may switch from Democrat to Republican.
With a major university nearby, South Bend residents tend to be Democrats. But that doesn't keep frustration from running high. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., blamed partisan politics when he shocked state voters by announcing his retirement in February.
Partisanship isn't what concerns customers at Fiddler's Hearth. "Government can make things much worse quickly, but it can't make things much better that quickly," argued engineer Mark Hanson, 57, one of about a half dozen people joining Wallace. "I actually prefer gridlock in Washington. It constrains the ambitions of Congress to change the world."
In 2008, Barack Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Indiana in 44 years, but he won by less than 1 percentage point. Today his party's standing in the state has taken a hit: The Democrats' choice to replace Bayh, Brad Ellsworth, a second-term congressmen who voted for the healthcare overhaul, is 21 points behind his Republican opponent, Dan Coats. This despite the fact that Coats, a former House member and a senator turned lobbyist, does not fit the antiestablishment mold now favored by many conservatives.
Pastor Wallace, 40, professes that even his wife doesn't know his pick for president in 2008. But he believes that "having an African-American in the White House is a good thing for this country." He also says that the current Democratic majority's agenda in Washington is giving the country a "chance to see what liberalism really is. Then Americans can decide if this is what we really want."
Wallace is still quick to warn his Fiddler's Hearth flock against putting too much faith in government. "This is not what should drive our lives," he said.
Between sips of his drink, Wallace, whose full black beard and glasses highlight his professorial air, likes to recount what happened last year when unemployment hit about 15 percent in his 125-member congregation.
The church came together. Members provided odd jobs that gave the unemployed the dignity of work. A deacon's fund for the unemployed reached six figures.
"This is what it means to be part of the body of Christ, using our resources to help one another," Wallace said, adding that too many churches rely on government programs to help the poor, which fosters a distance between the giver and receiver of charity.
He calls such local, personal outreach "getting involved in the small." Wallace argues that this provides greater benefit than devoting your time and money to the national political scene.
Wallace is prepping a sermon series on politics from a Christian perspective, but I would not be able to stay. I had to keep heading West. Next stop: President Obama's home turf.
Through five states in two days I had not run into many Americans with pleasant things to say about Washington.
While setting up the itinerary for the trip, I purposely had not asked the party affiliation of the individuals I wanted to visit. And yet people from Pennsylvania to Indiana had mostly complaints about Washington's current majority party (though they are not too happy with Republicans either).
But entering Illinois, I thought I just might run into some true blue state devotees.
Evan Kane, 41, a Democrat from Deerfield, Ill., spent the last two election cycles helping out his party on the campaign trail. He pushed hard for Democrat Dan Seals in two unsuccessful bids for a House seat in Illinois' competitive 10th District north of Chicago.
Now two years into the Obama administration, Kane believes it doesn't really matter who gets elected. The results, he said, are the same: disappointment.
"This was the time we could have had real social change," Kane, a real estate broker, told me. Kane said the new healthcare law, among other things, did not go far enough. He wanted a public option. "We were expecting another FDR. But it is FDR talk with no FDR results."
Federal policies have not helped Kane's clients avoid foreclosures or get needed bank loans. "There is a PR campaign about how things are going so well," Kane said after an area Chamber of Commerce breakfast. "But they are not. None of the problems are actually getting solved."
His frustration with Washington sounded very similar to the conservative anger I'd encountered in other states. Both groups seem fed up with the cast of characters making up the political status quo. But Kane's disgust has its roots in his belief that Democrats have underreached, not overreached. "I really thought he would be able to deliver," Kane said, referring to Obama. "Or did he just say those things to get elected? At the end of the day, nothing has really changed."
This fall Kane is remaining on the political sidelines. And he said he is not alone among liberals in his community: "More and more people are beginning to think that if you put the best man in office the system will corrupt him."
Such dispirited sentiments from Democrats in a state where Democrats hold every statewide office have Republicans eyeing a treasured bounty this November: the Senate seat once held by Obama.
Nationally, the Democratic Party's favorable rating dropped to a low of 33 percent in August. Obama won the White House partly due to large turnout among Democrats combined with a frustrated Republican Party. Now the roles may have reversed: Deep Democratic discontent may keep liberals home on Election Day in 2010.
It doesn't help the Democrats that their nominee for Obama's old seat, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, has a track record that raises eyebrows in the current economic climate. Federal regulators last spring seized his family-owned bank where Giannoulias once worked as a loan officer.
His opponent, Rep. Mark Kirk, who is leaving the 10th Congressional District seat he has held for 10 years, is better funded. But Kirk's early lead has dwindled to a dead heat after he had to apologize for misstating his military record.
"This is normally a Democratic state," admitted Kirk at a Labor Day rally, according to the Chicago Sun Times. "But we've won the grass-roots war. We've won the fund-raising war and now it's time to win the final battle. This is clearly our year."
In the northern Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Democrat Diane Rudy argues that liberals have had a successful two-year run. Rudy, an artist in her 60s, said she is disenchanted because Democrats "have not been able to get our message to connect with the people."
Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have failed to strike a chord with middle America. Meanwhile Republicans have succeeded in making their arguments against bigger government the main national narrative heading into this year's elections.
She is worried that disheartened voters like Kane will stay home this November. She said her homosexual friends are angry because Democrats have not ended the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. Other friends in the Hispanic community are upset because the immigration debate took a back seat to healthcare the last two years.
"Democrats are a rowdy group," said Rudy. She worries that too many Democrats "are solely focused on their individual passion. It could end up hurting the party by dividing ourselves."
She thinks Democrats can only be reenergized and reunified when Obama uses the bully pulpit of the presidency the next few weeks to highlight what is at stake this November. That is the same conclusion many top Democrats have reached: Obama plans four big rallies this fall to try to recapture the 2008 magic.
One of his first stops will be Sept. 28 in Wisconsin, which also happens to be where I am headed next.
Wisconsinite John Jury remembers being asked by friends on the streets of Stevens Point earlier this year to sign a petition in favor of the healthcare overhaul. The political independent's refusal to do so left puzzled looks on his friends' faces.
Stevens Point-a city located in almost the exact center of the state-began as a supply camp for loggers sending white pines down the Wisconsin River.
Today it is the seat of Portage County, a place where, according to Jury, "if you don't run as a Democrat you aren't going to win." That is, he adds, until now.
Everyone knows that Wisconsinites like their beer and brats. People here are also quick to use one word to describe themselves: frugal. "The only thing better than cheap here is free," explained the 63-year-old Jury.
Jury, a long-time administrator at the University of Wisconsin's local branch in Stevens Point, told me this native frugality is why so many Wisconsin voters are angry with Washington. The state has the 10th-worst financial condition in the nation in rankings compiled by Forbes.com, including a debt per capita of $1,429 and unfunded pensions per capita of $16,418.
In the aftermath of Washington's runaway spending, Wisconsin voters, who fell hard for Obama in 2008, are suddenly making life difficult for their veteran lawmakers. "This spending has got to stop," Jury said.
Russ Feingold, the state's three-term Democratic senator who won by 12 points in 2004, now finds himself deadlocked in his race for a fourth term against wealthy businessman and political novice Ron Johnson. Johnson has poured $4 million of his own money into the race. After labeling the race "solid Democrat" at the start of the year, the Washington-based Cook Political Report is now calling the race a "toss-up."
"I am you," Johnson likes to say on the campaign trail, highlighting his political inexperience.
The anti-incumbency mood also contributed to the May retirement announcement of Democratic Rep. David Obey, whose 7th Congressional District includes Stevens Point. Obey has been in Congress since 1969. "He sensed it was going to be much more of a horse race than it has been in the past," Jury said of Obey's decision.
As an independent, Jury is the type of voter who can make or break an election for either party. Dissatisfied with President George W. Bush's foreign policy and John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, Jury went for Obama.
Voters like Jury helped Obama win the independent vote, which made up almost 30 percent of the electorate, by 8 percentage points in 2008. But independents' disapproval of Obama has reached an all-time high of 57 percent in a September ABC News poll. By a 13-point margin, independents said they would vote for Republican candidates this year.
When asked if he is now feeling voter's remorse, Jury is quick to reply: "Oh yeah. I don't think it has gone as well as people would have hoped."
"I have a trillion point four reasons," Jury replied, alluding to the federal budget deficit, which hit a record $1.4 trillion last year.
"There has been a realignment. People around here are getting used to living on a little less," said Jury, adding that it is time for the government in Washington to learn how to do the same.