Economic worries strain loyalty for some Democrats
DECATUR, Ill. (AP) – Mike Riggen is out of work. Most of his friends are out of work, too. He’s raising two children on his own and they have expensive health problems.
Riggen could use some good news, but he doesn’t think he’ll get it from President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.
“I’ve been a Democrat all my life, but I don’t know any more,” Riggen, 52, said as he shared a pizza with his children at a union hall. “Nothing’s going right.”
It’s easy to find others with those same frustrations in Decatur, a central Illinois factory town that churns out mining trucks and turns corn into sweetener.
Decatur embraced Obama in 2008. Voter turnout surged, and he carried some precincts by 85 percent or even 95 percent. Yet now, as in struggling cities across the country, some independents and conservative Democrats – particularly white men who supported Obama before – say they no longer believe Obama and the Democratic Congress can help them.
Polls and interviews suggest they’re ready to swing to the Republican side – the leading edge of a storm bearing down on Democratic incumbents.
That’s leading to an interesting shift in how candidates are attracting voters in an election season filled with anti-Washington sentiment. Republican candidates can attract voters without offering detailed plans, said L. Sandy Maisel, a professor at Maine’s Colby College. It’s enough to be against the Democrats, at least in those areas across the country where jobs have vanished and more could disappear at any time.
“It’s specific pockets, but it’s a lot of pockets,” Maisel said.
These voters could shrink, or even erase, the Democratic majority in Congress. In Illinois, normally a solid Democratic state, the party could easily lose the tight race for Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat. The state’s Democratic governor is in danger, too.
Decatur’s unemployment rate has soared from 7 percent in 2008 to more than 12 percent today as factories close and major employers like Caterpillar Inc. expand in other states and countries.
In August, a bakery company that employs 65 people announced that it will close in October. Caterpillar is building a plant that will 500 people – but in Texas, not Decatur.
Candidates are feeling the shift, driven by fed-up voters. U.S. Rep. Phil Hare, a Democrat who represents the sprawling district that takes in farmland, Mississippi River towns and small cities struggling to hold onto manufacturing jobs, had no opponent two years ago, when he won his second term. Now he faces an energetic challenger with support from the tea party movement.
Republican Bobby Schilling is focusing on economic worries with a series of “Bob’s for Jobs” campaign events.
“This is going to be a pedal-to-the-metal race,” said Hare. “This is a tough year for incumbents. I’m not naive.”
Voters say they don’t blame Obama personally and they understand even the president can’t magically fix the economy. Yet they can’t help being disappointed – feeling that Obama has been more concerned about bailing out huge companies and repairing America’s image overseas than about saving their jobs.
Even the signature accomplishment of Obama’s first 18 months in office, a national health care overhaul, doesn’t earn the president much credit with voters like Riggen. He fears the plan won’t help people like him and will prove too costly for the country.
“I think that’s going to be the biggest mistake,” said Riggen, an Obama voter who was laid off in March from a metalworking job he’d held for 30 years.
Democrats hope voters will remember the stimulus programs that support job-creating projects around the country. That doesn’t seem to be happening in Decatur, where people complain about government inaction despite $4.6 million worth of transportation projects, such as road and bridge improvements, or home repairs in declining neighborhoods.
“Obama is talking, talking, talking. No action,” complained Les Vandela, a retired electrician. “I’m disappointed in him.”
Nationally, white men voting in 2008 preferred Republican John McCain to Obama by a 16-point margin. By the summer of 2010, that had ballooned to a 25-point preference for Republican control of Congress over Democratic control, according to AP-GfK polling. White independents, who favored McCain over Obama by a slim 49-47, now have a 44-28 preference for Republican control of Congress.
Schilling, the Republican congressional candidate, said his campaign is getting support from Democrats who feel Washington is ignoring their needs.
He pointed to “cap-and-trade” legislation that he thinks would kill jobs by making it harder for Illinois companies like Caterpillar and Deere & Co. to compete. He said workers want to know why they’re not getting the same kind of government aid that’s flowing to banks and auto companies.
“People are mad. We’re going to have a nice, strong turnout,” Schilling said.
Hare rejects the idea that Republicans would provide more help to struggling families, noting that Schilling and the GOP opposed extensions of unemployment benefits and stimulus money that is creating jobs. He said Democrats have done a bad job of communicating with worried voters.
“We’ve got to talk to people about what we’ve done to make their lives better,” Hare said.
Several struggling Decatur residents said Obama inherited a bad situation and is trying to fix it. “You can’t blame it on the president after what he got left with,” said Robert Taylor, who lost his factory job on a recent Friday the 13th.
Worries go beyond just jobs.
They resent illegal immigration. They worry about saddling their children with growing government debt. They feel powerless compared to expensive lobbyists and corrupt politicians.
But those concerns might seem a lot less grim if people had a good paycheck.
“There’s a great sense of resentment,” said William Faber, a Decatur attorney and Democratic precinct committeeman. “I would say our people need jobs more than anything else. Good jobs. Respectable jobs.”