Rep. Ben Chandler acknowledges that his wife was the only person he knew who thought he should run for Congress this year.
Chandler, a Democrat, was coming off a tough defeat in Kentucky's governor's race last year at the hands of Republican Ernie Fletcher. Fletcher's move to the governorship opened up his seat in Congress. Most of Chandler's friends thought his political career would not survive if he lost the special election this past February.
"They thought the Republican thing was too strong in Kentucky and there was no way to overcome it," Chandler said in an interview this week.
But Chandler won handily, becoming the first Democrat since 1991 to take a House seat from the Republicans in a special election. Chandler's victory was followed in June by Democrat Stephanie Herseth's win in a special House election in South Dakota for what had also been a Republican seat. The pair quickly became the toast of their party, emblems of a Democratic resurgence.
Republicans dismiss the idea that Chandler plus Herseth equals Democratic control of the House of Representatives this fall. They note that both were strong candidates from popular political families.
But the Chandler and Herseth victories would not have happened without a change of mood in the heartland that reflects more than just unhappiness among partisan Democrats.
Chandler sees two factors working together to make Democrats more competitive even in Bush Country. "Bush has energized the Democratic Party," Chandler said. "But there's also concern among independent voters on the administration's credibility."
The transformation can be measured by a subtle shift between 2002 and 2004 in the way Democrats running in competitive and Republican-leaning districts are positioning themselves.
In both 2002 and the recent special elections, Democrats in such places touted themselves as "independent" by way of playing down their party affiliation. In separate interviews, Chandler and Herseth used almost identical language in saying they would support Bush when his policies were good for their respective states.
But in 2002 many "red state" Democrats were reluctant to say anything that was critical of Bush, who was still riding his post-Sept. 11 popularity. Many Democrats spoke of their willingness to support him.
In the two recent special elections, both Herseth and Chandler were more willing to argue that independence also meant being willing to break with Bush and the Republican majority in Congress. Why? "There is just not the level of confidence out there for Bush that there was seven or eight months ago," Chandler said.
Herseth sees voters reacting against Republicans in Washington much as they reacted against the Democrats when they dominated Congress a decade ago.
"From 1992 through 1994, when Democrats had both houses, there was a sense that the Democrats had overreached," she said. "Now, there's a sense that Republicans have overreached in domestic and foreign policy."
For Herseth, the menu of issues over which she took on the Republicans included the Medicare prescription drug bill ("seniors are not helped and the drug companies are," she said); a beef labeling issue in which the interests of many of her state's farmers are pitted against those of large meatpackers, a classic rural populist issue; the concerns of veterans over cutbacks in their programs; and worries over large budget deficits.
Chandler also found veterans to be a powerful cause. "When you have men and women overseas and in harm's way, it's a time you need to be good on veterans' issues," he says.
The war itself is beginning to cause unease, with Herseth noting that the large deployments of National Guard troops have taken a toll on the patience of patriotic South Dakotans. "There's a frustration because of a lack of certainty of when they'll get home," she said.
Herseth sees many of these themes as raising the question of "who is really benefiting from government's role." For Democrats, it is a useful turn from old arguments about whether government should be "big" or "small." And it echoes Sen. John Edwards's primary campaign populism and his criticisms of "two governments," one for the privileged and one for the rest. Herseth argued that even in a very Republican state, voters were eager for "balance" in government, for a check on ideological excesses.
It cannot yet be said that as Kentucky and South Dakota go, so goes the nation. But when hugging President Bush closely no longer guarantees victory for Republicans, and when even GOP loyalists start worrying about partisan overreach, a new mood is stirring. Even in the red states, it's not 2002 anymore.