For Republican congressional candidate Jackie Walorski, this city is 2010’s version of the Normandy beaches on D-Day 1944.
Today’s senior citizens “fought for us” in World War II and “left bodies and blood on the beaches of Normandy,” Walorski said at a recent campaign stop in Kokomo, Ind. “Our fight of this generation is this ideological war that is brewing in this nation that is going to determine in November who we are as Americans.”
A state legislator and staunch anti-abortion conservative, Walorski won Tuesday’s Republican primary, defeating political novice, former Eli Lilly executive Jack Jordan. Now she’ll face Democrat Rep. Joe Donnelly, whose vote for President Barack Obama’s health insurance bill surprised and angered many in his district.
It's a scene playing out in congressional races across the country: Incumbent Democrats, even locally popular ones, are facing stiff challenges from conservative Republicans hoping to ride a wave of anti-government fervor to victory.
If Walorski can beat Donnelly, it will vindicate the Republican strategy of finding hard-edged candidates who frame House races as part of national referendum on Obama’s policies. And it will signal that a majority of voters in districts such as this one have repudiated the president and his Democratic allies in Congress.
Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Indiana since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide. He won the 2nd congressional district with 54 percent of the vote. It was a complete reversal from 2004, when George W. Bush won the district with 56 percent.
A Donnelly loss here in November wouldn’t necessarily mean that Obama had lost touch with the manufacturing Midwest, but it would be a danger sign for Democrats for 2012.
“This is our country. It is time we stand together and take it back,” said Walorski, the favored candidate of the Tea Party movement. “This Constitution that I have raised my right hand to defend is under direct assault and I will not stand for it.”
‘Best interests of the country’
Donnelly, one of three Democrats to take Republican House seats in Indiana in 2006, brushes off Walorski’s criticism.
“I didn’t make the easy decisions; I did what I thought was right for our district,” he said, alluding to his votes for the health insurance bill and the financial sector bailout in 2008.
“It’s easy ideologically to just say ‘no’ to everything, but there are realities and the realities are you have families who are looking at you to make decisions in the best interests of the country and in their best interest,” Donnelly said.
He characterizes his district as one where “you have earn it every day,” but in fact he strolled to a second term in 2008, lifted by Obama-inspired turnout, but also carrying every county in the district, even the rural Republican ones that voted for John McCain. This year looks to be different.
In an anti-establishment year, Walorski will be forcing Donnelly to play a role he hasn’t had to play in his three prior campaigns: that of the beleaguered incumbent and defender of the party in control of the White House and Congress.
Now the question is whether the election will be a referendum on Walorski’s highly caffeinated polemics or on the Obama health insurance law, which conservatives see as the leading edge of socialism.
Walorski’s backers frame the election in terms just as apocalyptic as she does:
“I think he’s trying to turn the country into a communist nation,” Michigan City, Ind., insurance agent John Palman said about Obama. “And this is America. We’re not socialists; we’re not communists; this is America, we’re free, so far.”
His wife Patty, even though she’s unemployed and uninsured herself, said the uninsured people who support the president are deluded. “Of course they’re going to say, ‘Obama, our savior is there to help us again.’ But they don’t understand how much of their lives they are turning over to the government.”
Donnelly doesn't believe his votes in Congress represent socialism. Rather, he thinks Congress had to act to help save the economy.
“If they’d had their way, they would have liquidated Chrysler” and those jobs would not have come back, he said of the foes of last year’s auto industry bailout.
Donnelly said the bailout has led to some encouraging news for his area: Chrysler is increasing production at its plants in Kokomo, the city at the southern end of his district, and bringing back nearly 400 workers who’d been laid off.
Donnelly's district includes part of Elkhart County, one of the areas worst-hit during the recession. The jobless rate is currently around 15 percent, well above the national average, but below a high of nearly 19 percent a year ago.
The election in November “will be fought on who stood up for the people in this district, who is the independent voice for people in the district, who has fought for jobs for the people in this district,” he said at a delicatessen in Elkhart as he toured the district last Friday.
Walorski isn't buying it: “I’m not in favor of the government bailing anybody out."
‘Enemies of freedom’
Indiana talk radio host Peter Heck, Walorski’s warm-up speaker in Kokomo, and a man she calls “a kindred spirit,” said Hoosiers must “rise up and defend this country against all enemies. We have an excellent military that’s doing that job defending us against enemies that are foreign; it’s time that we defend the republic against the enemies of freedom that are domestic.”
For Heck, “enemies of freedom” means Obama, Pelosi and Donnelly. He vows: “Their day is over… We’re coming for them…We want our country back and we’re taking it back.”
Despite Walorski's rhetorical attacks on Obama’s policies, she says he's a man a resurgent GOP could do business with, because he'll be trying to save his own political skin.
Calling Obama “a brilliant politician,” she argues that “if he has a Republican Congress and if he is going to try to run for president in 2012, he’s going to be a man of compromise. He’s going to adjust. I think he’ll do what he needs to do to be elected president in 2012. I don’t put anything past him.”
Nonetheless, Jack Jordan, the man Walorski beat to win the GOP nomination, believes she is too much the ideological warrior to win centrist voters in November. It's a criticism facing many GOP candidates as Republicans try to take back the U.S. House.
“I do have issues with her political rhetoric,” Jordan said of Walorski the day before the primary. “She says over and over again, ‘I’m going to send Nancy Pelosi back to California.’ People are tired of that. She has no ability to do that. I do have problems with that kind of rhetoric.”
For now, Walorski has staked just about everything on opposition to the health insurance bill.
“If you think the health care issue is over, wait until November and you will have the final word on the health care bill, not Joe Donnelly and not Nancy Pelosi,” she tells her supporters.
Walorski urges her campaign volunteers to stand up to Speaker of the House Pelosi and the Democrats. “I absolutely am not afraid of these people.”
Democrats and the Huffington Post mock her, she tells her loyalists, “not because they're afraid of me by myself, but they’re afraid of you.”