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'Mortgage Moms' May Star in Midterm Vote

Estelle Nunn, who has operated the Little Place Restaurant in Burlington, Ky., for 36 years, says her dollars are not going as far as they once did. She says she will vote Democratic in November. Many of her customers shared her discomfort about the economy, though not all shared her political views.
Estelle Nunn, who has operated the Little Place Restaurant in Burlington, Ky., for 36 years, says her dollars are not going as far as they once did. She says she will vote Democratic in November. Many of her customers shared her discomfort about the economy, though not all shared her political views. (Photos By Tony Tribble For The Washington Post)

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

BURLINGTON, Ky. -- Life is cramped at the Condit household. Dale and Sharon Condit and their two young sons need more room but can't seem to sell their current home -- on the market now for three months.

In a year when politics is being roiled by angry debates over the Iraq war and immigration, it might seem odd to imagine the midterm elections being waged over square footage and closet space. But these are parts of a lifestyle that Sharon Condit, a deputy clerk of court, describes as dogged by a sense of limits: "We have dreams of this future, but we can't get it right now."

This gap in expectations, a source of anxiety for the Condits, is a source of opportunity for former representative Ken Lucas, a Democrat who is trying to win back Kentucky's 4th Congressional District from incumbent Republican Geoff Davis. Attitudes about the economy -- "People are being pushed up against a ceiling," said Lucas. "They feel trapped" -- are part of the reason the Democrat is in a neck-and-neck race in a district President Bush won by 27 percentage points in 2004.

At first glance, the economy's role in this year's midterm elections is a puzzle. Economic growth and unemployment are at levels that in past years would have been a clear political asset for the party in power.

But one layer down in the statistics, the answer is more clear. Flat wages and rising debt nationally have converged to leave millions of middle-class households feeling acutely vulnerable to bumps in their financial planning. The most visible of these are rising energy prices and a softening housing market.

A less obvious but powerful variable is the interest paid by people carrying credit card debt or mortgages whose monthly payments vary with interest rates. People buffeted by these trends have given rise to a new and volatile voting block.

"People like this are making a large ripple across the body politic," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies. When added to the growing opposition to the war in Iraq, he said, worry about this economic crunch "is creating a political environment that is not that friendly to the party in power."

Every election cycle has its own important set of undecided, or swing, voters. In 2000, it was the "soccer moms," targeted by both parties with appeals based on education and quality-of-life concerns. In 2004, it was the security moms, normally Democratic-trending women whose concerns about terrorism helped give Bush his margin of victory.

This year could mark the emergence of what might be called mortgage moms -- voters whose sense of well-being is freighted with anxiety about their families' financial squeeze. Democrats are betting that this factor is strong enough to trump security or cultural values issues.

Kentucky's 4th District, stretching across nearly 200 miles of the state's northern tier, offers a useful window into whether the strategy can work. It includes coal-mining precincts with an Appalachian character, affluent Cincinnati suburbs along the Ohio River, and rural farmland that looks and feels more like the Midwest than the South. Unemployment in 2005 was 6.9 percent. The current national average is 4.7 percent.

Democrats here typically do not stress liberalism. Lucas, for instance, opposes abortion rights and gun-control measures. But in Kentucky and elsewhere, Democrats have some reason for optimism about the traction they might gain from the economy.

Polls show that swing voters -- the category that candidates most want to attract -- are unhappier than the rest of the population about their economic circumstances. According to a recent survey by Bloomberg News and the Los Angeles Times, six in 10 self-described independents said the economy was doing badly, and seven in 10 said the country was on the wrong track. A Fox News poll, taken at the end of last month, showed that 23 percent of Americans consider the economy the most important factor they will weigh when they cast their ballot in November -- more than those who cited Iraq (14 percent) or terrorism (12 percent).


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