CANTON, Ohio and HILLSDALE COUNTY, Mich.-About 20 members of an East Canton (Ohio) Rotary Club somehow managed to stay awake one recent 7:30 a.m., listening to reports on deteriorating public restrooms, grants for new playground equipment, and the raffling off of a hog at a local fair.
It was the second day of my cross-country road trip to measure the pulse of America in advance of this November's mid-term elections. Yet these issues seemed far removed from the trillion-dollar debates that occur in Washington, D.C. Had I driven 335 miles just to hear about toilets, slides, and actual pork?
But attendees assured me after the meeting that they have greater concerns than updating the community's jogging track.
The economy is Ohio's top concern, which is not surprising since the state's unemployment rate reached 10.5 percent in August-one of the nation's highest.
The exodus of major employers is a problem that continues to plague the area. The northeastern Ohio congressional district that includes Canton has lost nearly half of its manufacturing jobs in the last 10 years.
Locals still talk about the 2007 closure of the Hoover Company's original plant in North Canton. (The upright vacuum was invented in Canton 102 years ago.) They don't think the party in power is helping matters. "If I were a politician running right now, I wouldn't want to be a Democrat," said Tom Nieschwitz, a 63-year-old banker.
Nieschwitz cringes at the record budget deficits being rung up by Washington due to such policies as the nearly $1 trillion stimulus package. Then, after thinking about the area's continued economic misery, Nieschwitz says, "I ask myself, 'What good did it do?'" Nieschwitz has supported Democrats in the past, but that will change: "I can't see myself voting for Democrats this year because they are lockstep with Obama."
This represents an about-face from just two years ago. It is not what the district's freshman House Democrat, Rep. John Boccieri, wants to hear. The positive energy around Barack Obama in 2008 helped propel Boccieri to an election win. The victory put Ohio's 16th Congressional District in the Democratic column for the first time since 1951.
Now a reverse anti-Obama wave threatens to wash Boccieri out of Washington. He is not alone.
Many of the 31 freshman House Democrats face uphill reelection battles this November. Most took over Republican-held seats in 2008. Now they have to explain to conservative-leaning voters their support for the healthcare overhaul, sweeping energy regulation, bank bailouts, and stimulus spending.
To retake the House majority, Republicans need to gain 39 seats. And GOP leaders have in their crosshairs new Democrats like Boccieri. These freshmen lack the often insurmountable combination enjoyed by long-term incumbents: a ramped-up political machine, high name recognition, and rich coffers. Almost three-fourths of the races involving freshman Democrats are competitive, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
The reelection quest is made even harder for Boccieri. He is one of eight Democrats who first voted against the House healthcare bill in November before switching his vote to support passage of the final version in March. Boccieri is one of four freshmen to make the switch.
Scott Sanders, a second-generation funeral director and lifelong Canton resident, still feels the sting from Boccieri's vote. It proved to Sanders that Boccieri followed the dictates of Washington more than Canton. "Somebody from above pushed a button, and he just flip-flopped," said Sanders, 47.
Since being elected, Boccieri has endured billboards in his district depicting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a puppet master pulling Boccieri's strings. Healthcare opponents flew a plane over Canton with a banner reading, "Tell Rep. Boccieri no abortion funding." All to no avail.
Boccieri, at a March press conference, announced he would change his vote even though "a lot of people are telling me that this could cost me my job."
"I'm not worried about the election," Boccieri said then. He is now.
Boccieri has been traveling his district explaining his loyalty to the Obama/Pelosi agenda. But a recent poll by the American Action Forum shows that his challenger, Republican businessman Jim Renacci, holds a solid 14-point lead.
This despite the fact that few people at the Rotary meeting I attended could give me Renacci's name. "Even if he gets in and doesn't do anything but slow down Democrats-that would be good enough," banker Nieschwitz told me.
Boccieri is not the state's only freshman Democrat facing voter backlash for being an Obama soldier in Congress. In 2008, Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy became the first Democrat to be elected in the Columbus area's 15th Congressional District in 42 years. Despite winning by just 2,311 votes, she went on to vote in favor of the stimulus, cap and trade, and healthcare packages. Now Kilroy and fellow freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus, who represents Cincinnati, are locked in tight rematches with the Republicans they narrowly defeated in 2008.
This freshman trouble isn't confined to Ohio: About 225 mostly interstate miles northwest of Canton you'll find Michigan's Hillsdale College.
Around campus, statues of conservatives like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decorate the lawns. A statue of Ronald Reagan is set to be unveiled next spring.
Inside the college's library, oak-colored walls and leather chairs dominate the Heritage Room, where books like Thomas Paine's Common Sense are enclosed in glass. Not surprisingly, the college teaches core principles of the Constitution like limited government.
But what is surprising is that this conservative area's congressional district now belongs to Democrats. "If you had asked me six years ago, I'd have said no way a Democrat wins this district," said Mickey Craig, a professor of politics at Hillsdale.
But everything went right for Democrats in 2008: Local economic hardships created both voter exhaustion with the Bush administration and hope for Obama's promise of change. When GOP presidential hopeful McCain pulled out of Michigan just a month before the election, the abandonment had a trickle-down effect on other Republicans on the ballot.
Incumbent Rep. Tim Walberg, a former nondenominational minister and a free-market Republican, lost the district by 2 percentage points to Democrat Mark Schauer. Now, in yet another congressional rematch, Walberg and Schauer are at it again.
But Schauer, the first Democrat to hold the traditionally Republican seat in 16 years, has given voters something new to chew on: "Schauer was basically an unknown, and now he has a voting record," said Gary Wolfram, a Hillsdale College public policy professor. "That record is supporting Obama."
Like his fellow Ohioans, Schauer, despite his narrow victory, supported all of the Democratic Party's big-ticket items.
But the problem for Schauer is that those policies have not abated an unemployment rate that hit 18 percent in Hillsdale County. In the district's seven counties, unemployment now ranges from 9.3 percent to 15.4 percent.
"People are saying you can't blame it all on Bush at this point," said Wolfram.
Michigan's 14 percent statewide unemployment rate was the highest in the nation at points this year. This is bad news for Democrats who pledged that their expensive economic stimulus package would push unemployment to below 8 percent: Schauer trails Walberg by 10 percentage points. Meanwhile, another Michigan freshman, Democratic Rep. Gary Peters representing the state's 9th District, is in trouble as well.
The Cook Political Report lists 73 House Democrats as vulnerable, with almost all of them residing in counties where the unemployment rates exceed the national average.
"Obama just keeps driving down the left lane, and the American people are asking, 'How can you pay for this without hurting my retirement and my children?'" says Hillsdale's Craig.
With so many freshman lawmakers showing loyalty to party over state, one wonders if they did not fall on their political swords to advance a bigger government agenda. Over often strong constituent objections, did many Democrats push ahead, figuring the current congressional majorities gave liberals the best chance in generations to spawn new federal bureaucracies? "Schauer got swept into office," said Hillsdale's Greg Stuchell, 55, shaking his head, "and we got our change, whew."
If these lawmakers meet with defeat this November, conservatives hope that surviving Democrats will be less likely to soldier on with party leaders. Conversely, the survival of freshmen like Boccieri and Schauer would give Democrats a shot in the arm-bolstering their agenda as they conclude that voter unrest is not as bad as they feared.