While the tax revolt soars out of control and President Carter's standing keeps dropping in this middle-class Midwestern community, a veteran Republican congressman is threatened with a battle for survival.
Our interviews in Precinct No. 1 of Richland Township in southern Michigan west of Kalamazoo, conducted with help from Pat Caddell's Cambridge Survey Research, point up Republican difficulty in making major congressional gains. If six-term Rep. Garry Brown has trouble retaining his seat here, Republican chances for unseating many Democratic incumbents are bleak indeed.
These interviews suggest that Brown faces another tight race against Democratic challenger Howard Wolpe, barely edged out by Brown in 1974. The unmistakable conclusions: First, the Carter political fiasco is not hurting Wolpe; second, Brown is not helped by the tax revolt.
Questioning 69 registered and probable voters in Precinct 1, which was selected by Caddell as a barometer of the 3rd Congressional District, shows Carter losing a net nine voters to Michigan favorite son Gerald Ford since the 1976 election. These voters now divide 47 for Ford, 18 for Carter, 4 undecided. The president's job rating is 34 percent.
Simultaneously, middle-income voters here (mean salary: $17,000), mainly white-collar and skilled crafts, have tax-cut fever. They favor both Carter's tax reduction and the deeper Republican Kemp-Roth cut, both by more than 2 to 1.
More significant, they divide 4 to 1 for the Tisch amendment, a proposed sharp cutback in state property taxes on the November ballot roughly similar to California's Proposition 13 and similarly opposed by leaders of both parties. Although many voters expressed hesitancy because of reductions in government services, three out of four Tisch supporters conceded that such services probably would be cut back.
With inflation overwhelmingly picked as the nation's most serious problem, these voters are desperate for relief. "Too much money is wasted in the government," a 20-year-old community relations worker told us. The 39-year-old wife of a small-business man proclaimed the tax revolt's slogan: "Things are getting out of hand."
The anti-Carter, anti-tax mood would seem ideal for 54-year-old conservative Republican Brown (a sponsor of Kemp-Roth) against 38-year-old liberal Democrat Wolpe (until recently a field representative for Sen. Don Riegle). Yet our interviews show that the liberal National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) is realistic in putting Brown on its conservative hit list.
Brown carried Precinct 1 with 50.9 percent in 1976, while winning the district with 51 percent. Our 69 interviews (constituting about one-tenth of the precinct's 1976 voters) split 33 to 29 for Brown with 7 undecided - much too close to call.
What's more, these interviews tend to confirm the NCEC strategy of placing personality over taxes. As to which candidate is "too political," Brown leads Wolpe 5 to 1; Wolpe is viewed by a substantial majority as closer to them and a warmer, more decent person.
A 66-year-old retired salesman who voted for Carter last time would not now because "Carter's too wishywashy." While supporting the Tisch amendment and Kemp-Roth, this voter favors Wolpe "because Brown's not concerned enough on the issues."
Similarly, a 48-year-old office secretary, a self-styled conservative, calls Carter "a disaster," and backs the Tisch amendment as "the only way to accomplish anything. If we don't, they'll put the small-business man out of business." But she backs Wolpe, explaining: "I just have not been too impressed with Garry Brown."
Oddly, both these tax revolters prefer Wolpe's tax position to Brown's. Furthermore, despite Brown's support of Kemp-Roth, voters here generally perceive no difference between them on taxation. Whereas only 3 out of the 13 voters opposing the Tisch amendment support Brown, many of its backers are for Wolpe. Actually, neither congressional candidate supports the Tisch amendment, and Brown has so far not made a campaign issue of federal tax relief.
Garry Brown, second-ranking Republican on the House Banking Committee, joins the bipartisan political establishment - including Howard Wolpe - in approaching the tax revolt with extreme care (as shown in non-support for the Tisch amendment and failure to make Kemp-Roth a focus of his campaign).
Such caution helps the American ticket-splitter to dissociate congressional contests from the tax revolt as well as from presidential politics - precisely what Democratic strategists count on to keep their huge congressional majorities this year.