Swinging back

"Swinging back" Continued...

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

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.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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