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One of oldest bulls in Congress could be put out to pasture. Ike Skelton, chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, is in the re-election fight of his life.
He's a conservative Democrat representing a solidly Republican district in southwest Missouri. Voters there have sent him back to Washington for more than three decades, largely because he brings home the bacon in the form of military spending.
This year, though, Skelton faces a strong challenger and an anti-incumbent backlash, as NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: You can sense the kind of trouble Skelton may be in by talking with voters like Charlie Jeske. This retiree from Warrensburg, Missouri, is a Republican, but he's regularly voted for Skelton in past elections.
Mr. CHARLIE JESKE: He wasn't a very staunch Democrat. He voted Republican most of his life, not the last two years. So he's not going to get my vote this time.
WELNA: It's almost as if Jeske were reading the talking points of the National Republican Campaign Committee, which has been airing a TV ad in Missouri's Fourth District...
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Announcer: After 33 years in Washington, Ike Skelton's gotten lost. Instead of voting for Missouri, Skelton's voting Pelosi's party line, for Obama's failed stimulus, for Nancy Pelosi's irresponsible budget, for the death tax, even for a new job-killing energy tax.
WELNA: But ask Skelton about his recent voting record, and he'll point out he's gone against both party and president by voting against the health care overhaul, by opposing the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and by pushing back on efforts to trim Pentagon spending.
In an interview, the 78-year-old Democrat says he represents mid-America and does so, quote, "very, very well."
Representative IKE SKELTON (Democrat, Missouri): I've been able to work through the years with Democrats and Republicans regardless of who's in the White House. I've had good luck for my district and I think for the country.
WELNA: Skelton says as Armed Services chairman, he has something no newcomer could boast, clout with the Pentagon.
Rep. SKELTON: As a matter of fact, the admirals and the generals do answer the phone when I call.
WELNA: It was, after all, Ike Skelton who arranged during the Reagan administration to keep the entire fleet of B-2 stealth bombers stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base. To this day, the flat, black delta-shaped bombers blast off from that base into the skies of Missouri's 4th District.
(Soundbite of airplanes)
WELNA: And many of Skelton's constituents remain grateful for what he's done:
Mr. IAN AMES: I like Ike.
WELNA: Eighty-five-year-old Navy veteran Ian Ames landed in Normandy in World War II. He now lives in Buffalo, Missouri. And although he's a Republican, he plans to vote for Skelton in November.
Mr. AMES: I guess I like him because he stood up for the military people, where a lot of them want to cut everything in the military.
WELNA: Meanwhile, just down the street, Skelton's challenger is making the rounds.
Unidentified Woman: I want to introduce you to somebody. This is Vicky Hartzler. She's running for Congress. Michelle lives here in Buffalo, as well. We would appreciate your vote on...
WELNA: Former Republican state legislator Vicky Hartzler was only 16 when Skelton was first got elected to Congress. She says she wants his job now because Washington liberals are ruining this country.
Ms. VICKY HARTZLER (Republican Congressional Candidate, Missouri): The people of the 4th District are fed up with our congressman giving our vote to Nancy Pelosi for speaker and then squandering with her by giving it to her over and over again, 95 percent of the time. And we deserve better.
WELNA: Hartzler is perhaps best known in Missouri for having led a successful constitutional amendment drive to ban same-sex marriage. University of Central Missouri political analyst Shari Bax says it was no surprise when Sarah Palin endorsed Hartzler last summer.
Ms. SHARI BAX (Political Analyst, University of Central Missouri): She makes no doubt about the fact that she is a conservative candidate who is running on her Christian values.
WELNA: But University of Missouri campaigns expert Elizabeth Miller says Hartzler still has a big problem. She's not nearly as well-known to voters as Skelton.
Ms. ELIZABETH MILLER (Campaigns Expert, University of Missouri): I think she's run one of the best campaigns Skelton has faced from the opposition, but in the end, he has significantly more money than she has. And the Democrats see this as a seat that they should win.
WELNA: Republicans hope this will be Skelton's last stand. The GOP campaign committee has designated Hartzler one of its young guns. And in a sign of how high those hopes are, it's spending more on her campaign than in all but five other House races.
David Welna, NPR News.
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