Fear, frustration reign at the polls

By Sandhya Somashekhar and Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 12:14 AM

They came with their worries about the country, their dismay about an ugly campaign and their trepidation about their choices.

They gave their backing to the Republicans, but with qualifications, suggesting that their votes were more of a rebuke to the current party in power than a mandate for the new one.

And if voters sent a message by handing the House to Republicans, they were just as willing to send another by withholding the Senate: Their verdict was not so much a call to revolution as a plea for balance and an end to the gridlock that seems to have seized Washington.

The split decision reflected an America that remains deeply ambivalent in their view of how the country should be governed. Exit poll data showed that the slice of the electorate that showed up at the polls was older and more conservative than the turnout for the 2008 election. And while most of those voters were united in their concern about the economy and the direction of the country, the things that troubled them and their hopes for the future differed tremendously.

In the working-class suburb of Bristol, Pa., an unemployed 60-year-old voted for a tea party candidate in the hopes that national leaders will finally be forced to listen to people like her.

At an elementary school just west of the Las Vegas Strip, a homemaker held her nose and cast her ballot for the Democratic incumbent, even though she's been hit hard by the economic downturn.

And on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, Alex Elman, a student who voted eagerly for President Obama, stopped by the library between classes to cast a straight Republican ballot.

"Obama connected," Elman recalled. "He was going to unite people from different classes. He said that it wasn't red states or blue states but the United States."

Instead, he said, Obama had been as partisan as the rest of them; Democratic leaders had protected neither his finances nor the country's future.

"It seems," he said, his voice filling with confusion and wonder, "it seems like we're not number one anymore."

'A dangerous person'

It was a different fear that gripped the wealthy, liberal voters of the Highlands district of Louisville on Tuesday. Wearing suits, barn jackets and fleece - many clutching to-go coffee cups - they filed into a historic Baptist church to vote against tea party favorite Rand Paul, a libertarian and son of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).

"I think Rand Paul is a dangerous person," said Carolyn Brooks, 65, a historic-preservation consultant. She cited the Republican's previous statements about replacing income tax with a national sales tax, and undoing parts of the health-care overhaul. "I can't fathom [his win]. . . . This is like a Halloween joke."

Paul's victory was the first one announced Tuesday night.

Earlier in the day, Steve McRay wrestled over his decision. A registered Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008, he filled out his entire ballot in rural Bardstown, Ky., then paused again over the top of the ticket.

He thought the health-care overhaul hadn't gone far enough, and he thought the stimulus plan, which paid for paving the main street right behind him, had been a waste.

Finally, he picked Paul. Not that he had studied the candidate's positions in detail: In the end, McRay decided the message was more important.

"I just wanted a change," said McRay. "Get another voice in there."

'Lesser of two evils'

Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for Senate from Nevada who has been heavily backed by tea party groups, inspired similar fears among some voters in Las Vegas, who were deciding whether to return Angle's Democratic opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, to Washington for a fifth term.

Cathy Durrill, 47, a homemaker and native of Las Vegas, decided she would, but her endorsement was hardly ringing. She called Reid "the lesser of two evils."

She said she understands why so many voters are compelled to vote against him: Most Nevadans are grappling, in deeply personal ways, every day, with the state's economic woes. Durrill's husband sells cars, and he's seen sales drop from 250 per month to 150.

Her mother lives next to a house that has been vacant for two years. Her own investment property, in a subdivision not far from the home where she lives with her husband and 12-year-old twins, has a mortgage that's underwater.

But "I'm going to stick with Reid," Durrill said, almost sheepishly, as she headed into the school. "People blame him for what happened with the economy. But you know, we're a construction-based town. It's not his fault what happened when the construction went away. It's not his fault what the banks did, giving loans they never should have given."

Linda Pearson was not so generously inclined toward Reid.

"I went for the tea party!" said Pearson, 50, a housekeeper who sounded like she surprised even herself with her vote.

Pearson didn't even know who she was going to vote for until she started walking over to the polling location.

"I just prayed on my way here - 'God, please show me who to vote for.' " The message, she said, was: not Harry Reid.

'I like the tea party'

In the 7 a.m. chill, unemployed tech worker Cindy Schafle, 60, crossed paths with Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D) at a polling place in Bristol, Pa., a working-class town on the shores of the Delaware River. Schafle gave a little smirk, knowing that her vote for Republican Mike Fitzpatrick would cancel out Murphy's vote for himself.

During the 2008 campaign, she'd never heard of Barack Obama until she woke up one morning to find his campaign signs lining her street. That suggested to her that he did not have the experience to lead the country through difficult times. Two years later, she believes her suspicions have come true.

She hasn't had steady work since she lost her job as a computer technician in 2007. Her sister, her sister's husband and their two children have moved in with her because of financial difficulties.

The day after Election Day in 2008, she recalled walking into the diner where she has her daily $3.99 breakfast and finding it somber, quiet as a grave. On Wednesday morning, though, she thinks it will be bubbling with relief that the Republicans - with the help of the tea party - have retaken control of the House.

"I think this was my opportunity to straighten things out. I was part of the problem because I voted for Murphy," she said. "The problem with the Democratic Party is they were yessing Obama. With the tea party, their idea is to bring it back to the basics and put it back in the hands of the people."

'It was all yelling'

Two hours north of Madison, Wis., in the seat of Winnebago County, the people of Oshkosh had had about enough of the nonsense of the midterm elections. Local businessman Ron Johnson was mounting a strong challenge to Wisconsin's longtime, and proudly progressive, Democratic senator, Russell Feingold.

"Even the good fellows were splashing so much mud on each other," said Barbara Floyd, 70, exiting a polling station at Our Savior Lutheran Church. She sighed reprovingly, dismayed by this flamboyant lack of courtesy. "It was all yelling."

"Probably three weeks, ago I just threw my hands up and said, that's it now, I'm not going to vote," said her husband, Bob. But then he felt guilty ignoring his civic duty, so he showed up Tuesday morning. "I voted for Feingold because at least I know him," Bob Floyd said. "But when they get in there, they all change anyway."

He sighed, exhausted. The average folk in the middle of the Midwest staggered from polling stations looking not like proud citizens, but like wounded deer trying to make it to the side of the road before collapsing.

Oshkosh is the kind of town that movies about small towns still portray small towns as looking like. It has an independent drugstore; men in flannel browsing around the Power Center, which sells lawn mowers and chain saws; and four kinds of potato salad in the Piggly Wiggly. The people of Oshkosh are not prone to bombastics and are not used to dealing with people who have not learned to be nice or say nothing. This election blindsided them.

By Tuesday, the thing that people wanted most out of the election was for everyone to stop yelling at each other on television. And for the candidates to stop auto-phoning them all of the time.

"Between 9 a.m. and 9:15 every morning," Susan Osland, 42, said as she shopped for groceries. "Today it was 9:07. Usually it's 'Hi, folks, this is Ron Johnson.' Today it was 'Hi, folks, today's the day.' " She shuddered. "I heard the phone and I knew it was him" - Johnson, stalking her by robo-call.

But no more. It's finally over.

Candidates have liked to talk, throughout the campaign, about how tired Americans are of the country's trajectory. They never seemed to realize how tired Americans were of the candidates - of the relentless siege of sludge and slander, and the mental gymnastics of figuring out who was lying, and by how much.

"All you heard were the same sound bites," said Kris Selk, 60, voting with her husband, John. "Everything was distorted and blown up and out of context."

And now that the election is over, the couple felt . . . excited? Apprehensive? Hopeful?

The Selks look at each other for a moment before saying in unison, "Relieved."

sandhya@washpost.com hessem@washpost.com

David Farenthold, Darryl Fears, Amy Gardner, Annie Gowen, Nia-Malika Henderson, Jason Horowitz, Ed O'Keefe, Lida Rein, Lois Romano and Dan Zak contributed to this report.

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