2010 Newsmaker of the Year: The Angry Voter

 

By Patsy Brumfield / NEMS Daily Journal

Millions of unhappy voters forced political change throughout America in 2010.

As a result, scores of incumbent U.S. House and Senate members are returning home, including two of Mississippi’s four congressmen – an unprecedented election turnover for this state.

The U.S. House will have a new Republican majority, and Mississippi’s 1st District congressional seat is back in the GOP fold. The U.S. Senate’s thin Democratic hold is thinner.

What happened and what does it mean in the short term?

“Our people got energized in 2010,” said longtime GOP strategist Andy Taggart of Jackson.

As a result, he predicts this conservative re-engagement will require 2011 candidates to be more sensitive to this resurgence.

“Their patience level is very thin,” he said in assessing the electorate. “We need to see steady economic growth to keep them from firing everybody all over again.”

And for their influence not only on the 2010 election but, in all likelihood, on politics for years to come, the Daily Journal has chosen The Angry Voter as this year’s Newsmaker of the Year.

An embodiment of that re-engagement was the Tea Party, a loose nationwide framework of voters that took shape in the summer of 2009. Initially concerned about America’s fiscal viability, Tea Party members also objected to what it considered government overreach, particularly with health care reform.

Grant Sowell, a Lee County pastor, became a prominent local face and voice of that movement.

“We were and are saying that we can make better decisions about health care, education than leaving it to Washington,” Sowell said recently.

He said the Tea Party growth was fueled by a perception that the federal government was overly intrusive in many ways.

“Personally, it was more about the economy and fiscal irresponsibility,” he noted, but said he sees an evolution into conservative social issues, too.

Tea Party groups were especially visible in Lee, DeSoto and Lafayette counties. They hosted issue rallies and GOP candidate debates. Tupelo was one of the stops on the nationwide Tea Party Express tour in April.

Meanwhile, incumbent Democrat Rep. Travis Childers of Booneville “met” with voters on telephone “town hall meetings” and drew criticism far and wide for his lack of courage to meet with real voters.

Childers countered that the telephone set-up allowed him to connect with more people than he could at a live event.

Across north Mississippi, as the 2010 political campaign took shape in January, dissatisfied voters took up national rallying cries to “Impeach Nancy Pelosi,” the liberal Democratic speaker of the House from California.

It also was the strategy adopted by state Sen. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, the Republican nominee, who made the phrase his own and repeated it every chance he could.

On the issues, Childers and Nunnelee agreed on many key points, but Pelosi and Childers’ Democratic label dragged on him. Near campaign’s end, Childers admitted that he would prefer someone more conservative for speaker, but voters decided he would not have the chance to make that change.

Nunnelee trounced Childers in the Nov. 2 election across much of north Mississippi’s 1st District. The race was seen nationally as key for a GOP takeover in the House.

Even in south Mississippi’s 4th District, where maverick Democrat Rep. Gene Taylor held sway more than two decades with frequent votes against his party, Republican Steve Palazzo handily took the vote.

Taggart insists that the political winds found in Lee County are good bellwethers for national trends, and Sowell said The Angry Voter wasn’t just a Nov. 2 phenomenon.

The impact, he said, is being felt post-election, reflected in U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker’s change of mind on the Omnibus Spending Bill, which was shelved Dec. 16 because of widening controversy over funding for thousands of local pet projects, called earmarks.

Wicker of Tupelo and Mississippi’s senior senator, Thad Cochran of Oxford, led the list with earmarks, a issue Tea Partiers and others very much oppose.

Dr. Marty Wiseman, director of The Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said that while he doesn’t believe the state’s Tea Party “has enough volume to be a threat to Roger Wicker,” its voters do indeed have the former House member “on the radar screen.”

Tea Party blog www.redstate.com listed Wicker on Nov. 3 as a potential “target” of the conservative movement in 2012, when he comes up for his first election for a full six-year term.

Where did The Angry Voter come from?

Taggart said its genesis was in 2008 in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration’s first economic bailout and big stimulus program.

Jennifer Duffy, who reports for The Cook Political Report and The National Journal, said she saw it boil over in the summer of 2009, when members of Congress went back home and held town hall meetings about the new health care act, which was being debated at the time. “We saw some very heated reactions,” she said.

“It began to snowball with the financial crisis, and a stimulus package that overpromised and bailed out the car companies, when voters didn’t think that was government’s role.

“It emerged in health care. People saw it as a huge overreach.”

Then, nothing happened to cool that anger as both parties went hammer-and-tongs with negative attacks on each other.

Theotis Morris, 62, of Tupelo, reflected a nationwide sentiment on voting day.

“I’d like for things to get better, for them to stop fighting so much, and start looking for solutions to our problems,” he said after voting at the Lee County Courthouse on Nov. 2.

Tim Sahd, who tracks House elections for D.C.-based publication The Hill, said this voter frustration also fueled sentiment against incumbents generally, but especially Democrats and President Barack Obama, who were viewed by many as the people in charge of failing to repair national problems, particularly economic ones.

“Clearly, the angry voter was the foundation for the Tea Party,” he said.

He, too, saw the local health care forums as “the moment” this emotion “congealed.”

Voters perceived that government was “tone deaf” to their concerns, Sahd said, and that emotion lit a fire under some of them, especially conservatives and independents.

Wiseman, who was in the nation’s capital for a Rural Policy Institute meeting in early December, said the political ground-shaking has even some longtime Capital Hill maneuverers unsettled.

“They’re like a deer in the headlights,” Wiseman noted. “These folks are somewhat terrified because the Tea Party candidates, well, the last thing they want to hear from lobbyists is about how things work within the Beltway.”

Cindy Hyde-Smith saw this voter energy growing, as she went about representing her southwest Mississippi constituency in the state Senate.

Hyde-Smith is the only female member of the Senate Elections Committee.

“People saw and felt these tough times, and they said, ‘This is real,’” she noted.

She said she believes that worried Mississippians went to the polls “to tell the people in control, ‘I want something else.’”

Now, Taggart said, the national Republicans “must deliver” for what the voters said they wanted.

“We’ve got high expectations that things will be done differently,” he said.

“When the train’s hurtling in the wrong direction, the first thing is to stop the train.”

Sowell said The Angry Voter isn’t just one kind of person.

“They tried to say it was just a bunch of old, white people,” he said of what he termed liberal-media descriptions of the Tea Party.

But, he said, the Nov. 2 election saw increased turnout for widely diverse candidates, including many women and black conservatives.

This past election day, 77-year-old Martha Kelly of Oxford said she was motivated to vote, especially by her concerns for the nation’s fiscal problem.

She voted for Nunnelee, but she also said she wanted change.

“I told him,” she said, speaking about Nunnelee, “that if he doesn’t do what he should, I won’t vote for him again.”

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

Read more about the year in news in today's NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.

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