Features
Vergil Cabasco

Swinging back

Politics | After bringing Democrats to power in 2008, voters in the struggling states of Ohio and Michigan are preparing to register their regret at the polls

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

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.

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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.

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