GNAW BONE, Ind. — Meet the people of Indiana’s 9th Congressional District. If you want to blame somebody for what Washington has become, blame them.
In the past decade, as mounting voter disaffection created an angry cycle of “wave elections” in American politics, nobody rode the waves harder than the people of the district south of Indianapolis.
Among 435 congressional districts, this is the only one that has flipped three times since 2000. That makes it the epicenter of a national indecision that has helped wipe out Washington’s centrists and filled the Capitol with fractious partisans and frustrating gridlock.
Now, they’re already talking about another election.
But people here have wave fatigue. How many times can you be persuaded to throw the bums out before you decide that they’re all bums, every one?
“We’ve been trying to find somebody to do things differently. And we can’t find him,” said Donna Klippert, 65, a retired “lady truck driver” who has tried both Democrats and Republicans in past elections.
On one recent day, she and her dog, Puppy, were standing at the corner of Chestnut and Tipton streets in downtown Seymour, Ind., with a cardboard sign that said “Occupy Seymour.” Klippert said she was fed up with Republicans favoring the rich and powerful.
So, this time, she’s going to support the Democrats instead?
“No,” Klippert said.
The 9th District stretches across the bottom of Indiana, out over cornfields and courthouse towns. The basketball movie “Hoosiers” was based on one of them, tiny Milan, Ind. John Mellencamp, a native son, wrote “Small Town” about Seymour. Now, many of the area’s Norman Rockwell squares have hollow storefronts, full of lonesome junk.
From 1964 to 1996, there were 17 House elections in this district. Lee Hamilton, a centrist Democrat, won every one.
Then Hamilton retired. And things got wavy.
In 2004, as President George W. Bush won reelection, a Republican unseated Hamilton’s successor, Rep. Baron P. Hill (D). Then, in 2006, Hill took the seat back, as Democrats used a backlash against Bush to retake Congress.
Then, during the tea party wave last fall, the 9th District kicked out Hill once again. Voters replaced him with a square-jawed ex-Marine, Rep. Todd C. Young (R).
So what accounts for this region’s indecision? First, the district is so closely divided that a small change in turnout is enough to flip the balance.
“I got booted out after 20 years. The Democrats didn’t go out and vote,” said Paul D. Hardin, a Democrat and local official from Gnaw Bone. When Hill lost, Hardin lost, by 50 votes. “ ‘It’s time for change,’ they say. But what are they changing to?”
Also, residents said the incumbents were tossed out as a kind of running protest against a political system that didn’t seem to notice them outside of Election Day.
“There was no strong thing to put [Young] in. Just change,” said Darvin Apple, 64, a Republican eating bacon and eggs a few miles away in Paoli, Ind. His county has Indiana’s fifth-lowest rate of high school graduation and its fourth-lowest median household income, and he said locals wanted somebody who could change that. “Right now, I don’t think we’re going to make anything better, no matter what we do.”
If they wanted change in 2010, they got it.
Hill, the Democrat, had voted for two liberal priorities: the health-care law and Democrats’ failed effort to regulate greenhouse gases. (“This is going to cost me,” Hill remembers writing in his diary.) Young, the 39-year-old Republican, has voted to repeal the health-care law, and he questions whether climate change is man-made.
At a party for Republicans in Orange County, Ind., Young called Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) “useless” and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “an irrelevant cheerleader for lost-cause liberalism.”
Young also praised President Calvin Coolidge — on whose watch the country drifted closer to the Great Depression — as a model for the kind of hands-off governance he advocates. As evidence, he cited Coolidge’s habit of taking afternoon naps.
“A free society basically runs itself” was the lesson, Young said. “We need more Coolidges, more Reagans.”
This is the world that the waves have made.
On Capitol Hill, the electoral routs of 2006 and 2010 have decimated moderates from both parties — they are often knocked off when a swing district swings. Frequently, that means these districts near the political center have elected candidates from the far edges of the left or right. In August, for instance, 66 Republicans voted against a last-minute deal to raise the debt ceiling. They were risking a national default to show their commitment to the conservative cause.
Of them, 18 were freshmen, from districts that had voted for Democrats in 2008. (Young voted for the debt-ceiling increase.)
Now, both parties are hoping for a new wave to cure the ugly results of the last one. Republicans have recruited more than 40 candidates to run for Democrat-controlled seats they’re targeting in 2012. Democrats have recruited candidates for 60 seats that are either open or in GOP hands.
On one recent day, one of those Democratic candidates was standing at the edge of a cliff near Oolitic, Ind.
Jonathan D. George, a retired Air Force general who is running against Young, looked out from the cliff over the remains of a limestone quarry: broken rocks, scrubby weeds, a large gray-sided pit filled with rainwater.
“Fifty years ago, the southern part of the state had something of value to bring to America,” George said. A lot of it was right here, at a quarry that supplied stone for the Empire State Building. Now, locals call it “Empire Hole.” “You look out there now, it’s like a moonscape,” George said.
George, 54, is a former U-2 spy plane pilot and a member of President Obama’s national security team. He says Young is out of step with this region: unwilling to invest in roads, bridges and other infrastructure. George wants to use that kind of investment to create jobs in education and defense.
So why should voters trust him to deliver that, when they’ve soured on so many politicians before?
“People always say, ‘That’s a good question,’ when they don’t have an immediate answer,” George said. “That’s a good question.” His best answer is that he will work very hard, and that he turned down an Air Force promotion to come back and help people here.
He will have it harder than past insurgents. Young has won fans with his opposition to Obama, who is deeply unpopular here. The Indiana legislature has also redrawn the 9th District to make it more conservative.
“Everybody’s sick of people [in Congress] fighting, you know, and not doing what’s good for the country,” said Everett Hammons, 68, a retired worker for a school-bus company that’s now defunct. “I think the people have realized that, look, it’s a no-win situation.”
In Paoli, the incumbent — the man whom George wants to kick out — was building to the big finish of his speech to the county Republicans. Young said voters would face a choice in 2012. One path led to freedom. The other led to greater government control, down to “the ant-heap of totalitarianism.”
Then, in his final line, the representative of America’s most indecisive congressional district made a Freudian slip.
“May we choose widely,” Young said. Then he caught himself. “Wisely.”
Staff reporter Aaron Blake contributed to this report.