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In Close Races, Local Issues Still Dominate

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By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 29, 2006

MORGANTOWN, W.Va., Sept. 28 -- Spend nine days traveling through one of this year's most contested political regions and there is no mistaking the mood of voters: They are angry.

Nor is there any doubting the mood of incumbent politicians: They are anxious.

But it is a mistake to assume that anger and anxiety look and sound the same in these coveted precincts as they do in Washington.

The debates over Iraq and President Bush shadow virtually every competitive race, but they do not dominate the conversation -- which suits many Democrats just fine. This month's intense debate over policy toward terrorism detainees, meanwhile, carried hardly any echo at all.

Here is what has people talking in Kentucky's 3rd District: a new bridge over the Ohio River that would ease traffic for Louisville residents. In Indiana, voters are plenty steamed -- over the Republican governor's decision to privatize a toll road that runs through or near the seats of three embattled GOP representatives.

In Ohio's 6th District, visitors are likely to get an earful about what might be called earmark-envy: Why residents of neighboring West Virginia are getting a bigger slice of the federal budget pie.

The Washington Post logged a thousand miles traveling up the Ohio River Valley, where nine of the nation's most competitive House districts are clustered in a continuous line. The trip began in the tobacco fields of Kentucky and ended in this college town. Interviews with voters, candidates and operatives made plain why the old line about all politics being local is a truism: It really is true.

This is not to say the Ohio River Valley is insulated from national debates. They are clearly contributing to the uneasy mood evident in so many places along the dividing line of the upper South and industrial Midwest, even if that mood is often expressed in highly individualistic ways. Virtually every Republican candidate said they are concerned about what a sour electorate means for them on Nov. 7.

"I have never seen such anxiety," said Joy Padgett, a Republican running for the Ohio seat being vacated by GOP Congressman Robert W. Ney, who has pleaded guilty to corruption charges growing from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. "I believe that spills over onto the skepticism about virtually everything."

This free-floating angst, she lamented, is influencing attitudes about the economy, terrorism and politics in general.

If voters' snappishness is unmistakable, its impact remains far from clear. Take Laurie Pitcock. She lives in Ney's district and said she is dismayed by Republican inaction on environmental issues and other matters. Even so, she said, "I am still proud to be a Republican."

Her reaction was a commonplace one in these nine districts -- people expressed disgust with the Republican leadership in Washington but not necessarily toward the Republicans representing them.


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