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Red November?

Politics | Republicans need to gain 10 seats to take control of the Senate. It's a daunting task, but energized Republicans, dispirited Democrats, and deficit-wary independents are putting Democratic-held seats in unexpected jeopardy

Issue: "On the rails," Oct. 9, 2010

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.

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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."


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