LEWISTON, Idaho; OLYMPIA, Wash.; SEATTLE and SOUTH DAKOTA-When people plan coast-to-coast trips, it's usually to visit the nation's sights. But my recent trek from Washington, D.C., to Washington state for WORLD was more about seeing our nation's people.
I met a diverse America during my zigzagging, 4,225 mile, 10-day drive: doctors and engineers; Rotary club presidents and pastors; bankers and accountants; educators and real estate agents; owners of sheet metal plants, funeral homes, and restaurants. Still I could not resist one sightseeing detour: Mount Rushmore.
I was not alone in being drawn to this South Dakota landmark. Thousands of bikers, decked out in every manner of patriotic garb from red, white, and blue bandanas to American flag tattoos, had come to pay their respects on their way to one of the nation's biggest motorcycle rallies.
Mount Rushmore's granite-sculptured rendering of four of the nation's most recognizable faces offers an irresistible place for reflection. And the roar of hundreds of revved-up Harley-Davidsons didn't quiet the riders: They were eager to unleash their frustrations over the country's political present. "Those are our fathers, and we've lost it," said David Simmons, 60, of Vancouver, Wash., pointing at the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln. "It almost makes you sad, to tell you the truth. You think about our forefathers and what they did to get us here. We are now going the other way."
This disappointment echoed comments I heard thousands of miles earlier in Dover, Ohio. There Charles Deeds, 76, told me that the government has "created some holes in our national trust." Politicians and citizens no longer "understand what makes America different. Maybe it is a result of too much success."
They also foreshadowed what I would hear at my next stop in Montana. Charles McMurrey, who works for a nonprofit community development project in Billings, bemoaned the loss of the American dream that says hard work pays off: "It's what sets America apart. If we are looking at government for the answers, it is just an expensive band-aid. It is taking us down a path we can't recover from."
Those opinions came from a Democrat, a Republican, and an independent. They may reflect a diversity of political ideology, but they show a unity of belief that the nation is going in the wrong direction.
Throughout my trek across the United States, I heard the same thing-concerns about spending and living beyond our means, too much government, and not enough common sense. This is the voter mindset confronting current and aspiring politicians everywhere during their final campaign lap. In a few short weeks all the volatile ingredients of this election season-tea parties, Obamacare, federal bailouts, chronic joblessness, federal debt-will come together at the voting booth. The final two stops of my American journey show why this season, perhaps like any other midterm election in memory, is engaging new kinds of candidates, and old voters in new ways.
The last time Bobby Fuller got involved in politics he was running for president of the ninth grade.
Fuller, 39, has spent the past decade as a parole officer in the juvenile justice system. Reforming wayward youth didn't leave Fuller with enough energy to follow the latest legislative debate. "I'd rather watch shark week than CNN," he admitted.
But last March, Fuller, yearning for the freedom of being his own boss, poured $200,000 of his retirement savings into buying and remodeling the Cedars Inn in downtown Lewiston, Idaho. Fulfilling this dream has forced Fuller to look at how the decisions being made at a Congress located more than 2,500 miles away could affect his 62-room hotel.
He is already learning how federal regulations can be as difficult to understand as a teenager in detention. Fuller hired a staff of six and has plans to hire more workers and buy another hotel. But Fuller is having trouble securing a bank loan. Reluctant banks navigating their own tighter regulations are stonewalling small businesses like his.
"To be honest, the people it's hurting the most are those looking for jobs," Fuller said. "At least two times a day I have someone coming in looking for work. It is not like I want the money to build a pool in my backyard."
Fuller's lesson in government's reach has led him to join the local Chamber of Commerce. One suspects his political education is just beginning: "There is so much stuff going on. It is overwhelming. I don't know what to keep track of, what to listen to, what's true, what's false, what to get involved with. You don't know who these people are making these decisions."
Fuller has picked a great city for a hotel: Lewiston, located beside the 1,000-mile long Snake River, is a hunter and fisher's paradise. Outdoor Life magazine last year ranked Lewiston as the nation's top town for anglers.
The city of more than 31,000 residents is, like the rest of the state, a conservative stronghold that prefers a hands-off government. Across town from Fuller's inn, School Superintendent Joy Rapp is worried about another form of government intervention. As head of the city's Independent School District No. 1, Rapp oversees 4,900 students in 11 schools. She knows that the new Congress will have to reexamine the No Child Left Behind education act.
"I think it has been intrusive," Rapp told me. "They have us doing things that make no sense and consume a large amount of resources."
Rapp said the law has very little flexibility for rural states like Idaho. Instead it tries to impose a one-size-fits-all model that tends to favor big city districts. "What creates passion in your job is not doing what other people tell you to do," Rapp said.
With these kinds of government views in Lewiston, one would expect that the area's congressional district is safely in Republican hands. After all, John McCain won the state handily over Barack Obama in 2008. The state's 1st Congressional District would seem to be a shoo-in to become one of the 39 seats Republicans need to win control of the House.
But not only is the district's incumbent a Democrat, he has enjoyed a comfortable lead for much of this campaign season. Rep. Walt Minnick's likely survival serves as a warning against the current election narrative that the GOP takeover of Congress is a foregone conclusion.
By less than 5,000 votes, Minnick in 2008 became the first Democrat to win an Idaho congressional election in 16 years. During a difficult season for both incumbents and his party, Minnick, 68, has maintained a steady double-digit poll lead.
How? By acting like a Republican.
Minnick, who once worked for Republican President Richard Nixon's administration, has voted against his party more than any other Democrat.
The fiscal conservative opposed the $787 billion stimulus package and the climate-change bill. He voted against the healthcare overhaul-twice. He introduced legislation to ban all earmarks and is a key backer of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.
Minnick even became the first and only Democrat to receive a Tea Party Express endorsement last spring.
This voting record leaves Republican challenger Raul Labrador with few soft spots to hammer. His task becomes even more difficult when considering that Minnick has enjoyed a 16 to 1 fundraising advantage.
But Labrador, whose ads call him a "real Republican," is used to the underdog status: He came from behind to win the GOP nomination over a candidate who had the backing of both the state Republican party and Sarah Palin. This time he is trying for an upset by targeting someone other than Minnick: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi have done so much damage to our country the last two years," Labrador said at an Oct. 9 rally, standing in front of a bus that had "Fire Pelosi" painted on its side. "The ugly truth, and he doesn't want you to know this, is that they have done it with the help of Walt Minnick."
Minnick has refused to say whether he would vote to retain Pelosi as House speaker. "When a party loses seats, that leads to leadership changes," he wavered to CNN in late September. But Minnick seems poised to defy the odds and become just the third Democrat to win a second term here since 1964.
If that is the case, House Republicans already are looking at Plan B: They hope to entice Minnick into a party switch if he returns to Washington.
Having spent 37 years as a judge, including nine as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Gerry Alexander enjoys a lofty vantage point when it comes to Washington state's political landscape.
At 74, Alexander is nearing mandatory retirement. Maybe that is why he loosened up to me regarding the current political climate.
"People think it could be the ruination of the country if we don't get [federal spending] under control," Alexander said in his office at the Temple of Justice building, not far from the Olympia neighborhood where he grew up.
It is the last day of my cross-country trip, after 15 states, and I didn't really need a judge to return this verdict: Anxious Americans are angry at Congress. But Alexander confirmed that this is true even in a left-leaning state such as Washington where six of its nine House members are Democrats.
"If you ask them if a divided government is a good thing, most people here would say yes," Alexander said. "They would really like to see another party control Congress that is different from the White House."
The party's D.C. leadership has spent the last two years pulling Pacific Northwest Democrats further than many wanted to go. After the ambitious policies of the last two years, Washington voters seem less enamored with Barack Obama the president than they were with Barack Obama the candidate, said Alexander.
That could be bad news for the job security of incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. She used a "mom in tennis shoes" campaign shtick to get elected to the Senate in 1994 and has since cruised through two reelections. But Republicans "saw blood in the water," said Alexander. In challenger Dino Rossi, the GOP offered up a conservative who might have the tools to win.
Rossi, a former state senator, lost the closest gubernatorial race in U.S. history in 2004. Certified as governor-elect after the election, Rossi lost in a mandated recount by a mere 133 votes. But the drama surrounding the defeat boosted Rossi's name recognition.
"In a lot of people's minds he was robbed of the governor's race," said Laura Worf with Olympia's homebuilder's association. "People feel like he is owed one. He is the nightmare opponent for Murray."
Sensing this, Murray came out with an aggressive barrage of negative ads after Labor Day. Rossi has withstood the attacks. After a slight dip in earlier polls, an Oct. 8 poll by Rasmussen showed Rossi with a 49 percent to 46 percent lead.
Trying to end the race early, Murray burned her money advantage with her September offensive. At the same time Rossi's own fundraising haul of $4.4 million in the last quarter is being supplemented by $4 million additional dollars from outside Republican groups.
This enabled Rossi to counterattack with his own commercials highlighting Murray's insider status. Lobbyists have given more money to Murray this election cycle than any senator except embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Beyond this $665,000 cash infusion, Murray's tennis shoe mom moniker has taken additional hits with the report that at least 17 of her former staffers now work as lobbyists. Murray sent nearly $20 million in earmarks their way in 2011 spending bills.
A state where 58 percent of voters backed Obama in 2008 now has a Democratic incumbent in trouble. If this seat goes Rossi's way, it will be a huge step toward a Republican takeover of the Senate.
For the final stop of my cross-country trip I headed to the Seattle area. This is the state's Democratic core. Murray needs a big turnout here to hold onto her seat.
Not far outside the city, in a suburb of mini-mansions, I met John Jensen, 49. Jensen fixes roofs. He also organizes well-attended candidate forums for the county. He agreed to meet with me, but he couldn't leave his current job-replacing tile on a multimillion-dollar home. So I put aside my fear of heights and joined Jensen at his worksite overlooking two of Seattle's lakes.
"I'm concerned that there is a lack of understanding by many in power of the real impact that taxes and regulations have on businesses," said Jensen, who recently had more than 150 people come to one of his forums to meet the candidates. "I don't understand how smart people can continue to do these things."
Still, voters put such people in positions of power, and Jensen thinks citizens need to look in the mirror for the source of their anxiety and anger over the state of the country.
"I blame bad contractors for bad houses," he said, "and I blame voters for bad politicians."