Heartland Voters Feel Frozen Out By Debt Debate

Catherine Ridgley of St. Charles, Mo., with her daughter Carryl, says she's had "too much of government."

Catherine Ridgley of St. Charles, Mo., with her daughter Carryl, says she's had "too much of government." Alan Greenblatt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alan Greenblatt/NPR

Rep. Todd Akin's constituents want to see a deal putting an end to the debt ceiling debate, but not just any deal.

Despite party pressures, the Missouri Republican is planning to vote against Speaker John Boehner's latest proposal to lift the debt ceiling. It doesn't do enough to "address the spending problem," according to Akin's spokesman Steve Taylor.

That position is not likely to hurt him at home. Akin represents Missouri's 2nd district, a conglomeration of conservative voting precincts stretching from suburbs west of St. Louis, on north into more rural Lincoln County. The six-term lawmaker, considered one of the most conservative members of the GOP caucus, has announced that he's running for the Senate next year.

Some voters in the 2nd want a deal done for fear that the threat of a government default could collapse an already fragile economy. But others are skeptical that the consequences would be so dire. And many remain more worried about the prospect of tax hikes than a potential default.

"There should be spending cuts only," says Maria Desloge, a Clayton resident who works at a law firm. "I would say it should be 95 percent spending cuts. I wouldn't give 50-50, for sure."

The Heart Of The District

The historic heart of the 2nd District is St. Charles, directly across the Missouri River from St. Louis County, which served as Missouri's first capital in the 19th century.

Its Main Street is a well-preserved row of clapboard and brick buildings filled with professional offices, bars and specialty shops with names like Deb's Gifts & More and Riverfront Sweets. On a torrid afternoon, Catherine Ridgley came over from Ellisville to visit St. Charles, where her grandmother once operated a marriage parlor.

Ridgley is a retired postmaster but says she's "had too much of government." She blames out-of-control spending for the nation's debt problems. "There are things you have to spend money on," she says, but there are plenty of examples of waste, in her eyes.

Missouri's Political Map

Missouri has long been considered a political bellwether, nearly always supporting the winning presidential candidate regardless of party. But President Obama narrowly lost the state in 2008, and the vast majority of its 114 counties vote strongly Republican, giving the GOP dominance in the state Legislature.

The state's political map resembles that of the nation as a whole. Dense clusters of Democratic voters along the "coasts" — St. Louis to the east and Kansas City to the west — can sometimes outvote the mostly Republican territory to the south and west.

The outcomes of statewide races are often determined by 2nd District voters. St. Charles, the district's primary county, grew by 27 percent from 2000 to 2010, to 360,000 residents. Missouri Republicans have to make a strong showing in St. Charles to overcome the Democratic tendencies of the urban population centers.

In 2006, Democrat Claire McCaskill was able to unseat GOP Sen. James Talent "by holding him to 52 percent of the vote, instead of the usual 57 percent" showing for Republicans in St. Charles County, says Steve Ehlmann, the county executive.

McCaskill's strategy of trying to eat into GOP support in exurban counties has since been followed by other Democrats running statewide, including Gov. Jay Nixon, who was elected in 2008.

But Obama lost St. Charles County that year by 18,427 votes — far more than his 3,903-vote deficit statewide.

She's upset by a report she saw on a TV news broadcast about the Social Security Administration spending money advertising on billboards. "It's stupid, it's garbage," Ridgley adds, about government-funded research on frogs.

No Small Solutions

Other residents suggest simple approaches to the deficit problem, such as collecting a $20 annual fee from each working American to combat the debt. But most people recognize, at least implicitly, that Congress faces difficult choices in bringing down deficit spending without radically cutting into important programs.

Many are concerned that Social Security cuts could leave them or their parents more vulnerable. And no one seems to favor doing away with the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners.

Still, some people joke about wanting to see a default occur, if only to force Congress to take major action to address unsustainable deficit trends.

"It's just kind of sad, with so much at stake, that a deal can't be done," says Mike Lee, who works in finance in Clayton.

The Financial Picture

Clayton is a major financial center for the St. Louis area, its downtown streets lined with banks and brokerage houses. People who work there are watching the impact of the debt debate on stock prices. Some talk about things like their preference for smoothing out the tax code by eliminating tax breaks over raising marginal rates.

Clayton is far from the most conservative part of Akin's district, but even there people don't seem eager to see the deficit problem addressed through tax increases.

Chase Young runs a farm with his brother but makes his living as a commercial real estate broker in Clayton. He says he could live with a short-term tax hike to address the immediate debt crisis, "but you've got to show me a long-term plan to get those taxes down."

Young also doesn't favor targeting the wealthy for tax increases, because "a lot of those people worked hard for the money."

Still, he recognizes that someone is going to have to pay. "No solution is going to be perfect for everybody, and a deal has to get done," Young says.

Frustrated With Washington

Some 2nd District residents are skeptical that the debt ceiling represents a real crisis, as opposed to a lot of hype over the usual spending excesses in Washington, especially given recent reports suggesting the Treasury Department will still be able to pay its bills, at least for a short period after the purported Aug. 2 deadline.

"They've already blown past the [debt ceiling's initial] deadline," says Lee, the financial adviser in Clayton. "Would the world end as we know it if they don't make a deal? Probably not, but the downstream effects are hard to know."

But the opinion most widely shared among district residents seems to be that Washington is broken. Most 2nd District voters are conservative — and there are plenty of anti-Obama jokes and bumper stickers in evidence in the area — but they seem mainly to adopt a "plague on both their houses" attitude toward the partisan posturing in Washington.

"Partisan politics is what's wrecking the country," says John Reid, a metallurgist and iron foundry supervisor in St. Charles. "It's absolutely ridiculous that they can't make a deal."

Watching For A Puff Of Smoke

Reid says he's "extremely nervous" about the economic impact that a government default would have, "as every American should be."

Like others in the area, Reid suggests that President Obama and members of Congress should be locked in a room together, like cardinals picking a new pope, until they can agree on a plan.

For the most part, though, people in the 2nd District worry that elected officials in Washington are already leading too insular an existence, living in their own world of lobbyists and party politics. There's a lot of grumbling about the disconnect between the arguments taking place in Washington and "what's happening out here."

"They say they represent you up there, but that's a lie," says John Siampos, an engineering consultant taking a break at Picasso's coffeehouse in St. Charles. "They represent themselves and the people with big money."

It's a common point of view. Despite the importance many people place on the budget and deficit issues, none seem to feel it's worth their time to contact Akin or their senators. Their opinions might get logged by a staffer, but they believe members of Congress only listen to the voices of lobbyists.

"Elected officials will only answer a phone call from AARP or the NRA, any interest group that represents a voting bloc of constituents," says Michael Drennen, who runs a business building websites in St. Charles. "The people are not represented."

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