First-term Representative Sean Duffy leveraged voter backlash over expanded government into an election win last year. His support last week for the U.S. debt- reduction deal is leaving the Republican vulnerable to a potential revolt of his own.
In Duffy’s northwest Wisconsin district, the stock market’s volatility following Standard & Poor’s lowering of the nation’s credit rating has some voters angered with a deal they say didn’t do enough to prevent a downgrade. Others say they’re fed up with an ongoing debt debate that diverts attention from ways to jump-start a slow-moving economy.
After benefiting from an anti-Washington mood to take office, Duffy now confronts voters who -- while they may not offer specifics -- view the government as dysfunctional, and see the financial markets validating that view.
Charles Walker, a retiree from Haugen, Wisconsin, said his investments lost about $30,000 in value in the Aug. 8 drop. He said he’s prepared to vote against Duffy and other office- holders next year because they’re not doing enough to address the budget deficit and the economy.
“Incumbents should be taken out as far as I’m concerned, because they’re not doing what we elected them to do,” said Walker, a long-time Republican who has voted Democratic in recent elections.
How Duffy and the 86 other freshman House Republicans handle such discontent is key to whether the party keeps control of the chamber in 2012. Democrats need 24 seats to retake the House and Duffy, elected with the support of Tea Party activists rallying against the reach of big government, is a top target.
In voting earlier this month for a compromise raising the nation’s debt ceiling by more than $2 trillion and demanding an equal amount in budget savings over a decade, Duffy, 39, made a choice avoided by many House members facing close races next year. He said he felt compelled to help avoid a default on the nation’s financial obligations, given that the measure makes more than $900 billion in initial cuts.
While the compromise may have angered some, he said, swing voters should appreciate his willingness to advance the debate as leaders seek more budget cuts in the months ahead.
“Some don’t like it, some like it, but it’s the independents who drive these election cycles,” Duffy, a former county prosecutor, said in an interview before circulating with veterans at the Superior job fair. “They want responsibility out of government, they want accountability out of government.”
The compromise will challenge his political skills, positioning Duffy to navigate between Republicans who support deep spending cuts and Democrats and some independent voters who want to shield retirement and other programs and believe some taxes are needed to close the budget gap.
“From the get-go, Duffy is going to be a target for Democrats,” said Nathan Gonzales, political director of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “The bill is controversial enough that he could draw even more criticism from the left” while he parries “criticism from the right now.”
Duffy has shown a willingness to part ways with Republican leaders that could help him, said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor. That includes voting for funding for public radio -- which is popular in his district -- when most Republicans voted to cut off those funds this year.
“It’s not a district that has for the last 40 years embraced doctrinaire conservatives at any level,” Franklin said. “Some moderation on his part is a wise strategy for a Republican with intentions to hold the seat for a long time.”
Duffy, the 10th of 11 children raised in Hayward, Wisconsin, has won world lumberjacking titles for speed-pole climbing -- a good fit in a timberland-rich district. He also had a brush with celebrity-hood as a cast member in 1997 on MTV’s “The Real World: Boston,” a show designed to spark confrontation among young people from different backgrounds.
Still, he was a surprising victor last year. The district, sprawling across almost a quarter of the state and including small towns nestled along Lake Superior, was represented for more than 40 years by Democrat David Obey. District voters have backed Democratic presidential nominees since 1988.
Political analysts ranked Duffy an underdog when he announced in 2009 he would challenge Obey, the then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Obey, though, decided in mid-2010 not to seek re-election, and Duffy in November defeated a Democratic state senator with 52 percent of the vote.
His candidacy caught the eye of Tea Party stalwart Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican nominee for vice president who urged donors to support Duffy.
As he seeks re-election next year, political headwinds he likely will encounter include generic ill-will toward Washington. A record 82 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, according to a New York Times-CBS News survey conducted Aug 2-3.
Don Kozlowski, an independent voter in Merrill, Wisconsin, who supported Duffy in 2010, says he’s dismayed Republicans in the debt talks dismissed tax increases for the wealthy to help revamp the government’s finances. He said both parties need to accept a broader deficit-cutting plan, and quickly, to restore investor confidence and turn the debate to job creation.
“We’re suffering, look at what the stock market’s doing,” Kozlowski, a welder, said Aug. 8 after the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped almost 635 points. “They should have worked this out a long time ago, not put it off and put it off.”
“He’s lost sight of what’s going on,” said William Wiseman, a Republican who met Duffy at an Aug. 10 job fair for military veterans in Superior, Wisconsin, where Wiseman was looking for a better-paying job than his at a railroad transport firm. “He needs to do his job. Stop arguing, fix it and let’s get back to doing the government’s work.”
Others defend Duffy. Chris Durst, a retired social worker in Wausau, Wisconsin, said Duffy’s vote for the debt deal could hurt him with the Republican base, but shows he can take more- moderate moves that fit the district.
“In his case, it will probably help him in a presidential election year, because he can come off as a moderate as opposed to a more conservative Republican,” Durst said. “And I think most thoughtful people realize it will take a year or two to straighten out the deficit.”
Duffy, who is married and the father of six children, also must contend with political tumult in Wisconsin, where voters in both parties have been stirred this year by Republican Governor Scott Walker’s successful drive for a law curbing union bargaining rights.
So far, Duffy faces no Republican primary challenger. Among Democrats, former state senator Patrick Kreitlow has announced his candidacy.
Boosting Duffy’s chances is the 2010 Census-mandated redistricting that brought more Republican voters into his district. He also has a significant fundraising advantage, collecting $612,000 through June 30 to Kreitlow’s $90,000. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, will hold two fundraisers for Duffy in the district on Aug. 16.
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