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In Missouri, debt-ceiling stands are shaping 2012 campaigns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 3, 2011 - After both chambers of the U.S. Congress had voted in favor of raising the federal debt ceiling, Republican congressional candidate Ann Wagner still felt it was necessary to weigh in with a public statement opposing the deal.

Wagner's announcement differed little from her earlier comments decrying federal spending. But the fact that she felt the need to issue a public declaration against the debt ceiling increase -- after the vote -- underscored the political dynamics of the debt-ceiling deal, at least in Missouri.

Many of Missouri's GOP candidates for Congress -- including Wagner's rival for the 2nd District seat, Ed Martin, and all three contenders for the U.S. Senate -- have made a point of promoting their opposition to raising the debt ceiling.

Such action is understandable and arguably unavoidable, said local Republican consultant Paul Zemitzsch. "They're staying away from the '3rd rail,' " Zemitzsch explained, referring to the twin evils for the GOP of increased debt and spending.

The nation's debt ceiling was raised about two dozen times, combined, under two Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush). Still, Zemitzsch said that the issue now "has got glue stuck to it'' for any Republican deemed to support the idea.

Tea party influence

Zemitzsch is among many who credit the tea party.

"If you're a Republican in a Republican primary, you have to pull to the right," said George Connor, chair of the political science department at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo.

While long a universal truth, that need to appeal to the party's base -- especially in contested primaries -- is particularly strong now, given the rise of the conservative tea party movement, said Connor.

Republican candidates must "establish credentials with the tea party wing," he said.

Connor and others emphasized that politicians and 2012 candidates in both parties could feel -- and possibly fear -- fallout from this week's debt-ceiling vote. The liberal group Moveon.org, for example, nationally organized protests outside the offices of various members of Congress who voted for the deal -- including a local office of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

"The far ends of both spectrums have scared the bejeezus out of both parties," said Zemitzsch, a Republican.

But at the moment in Missouri, it's the tea party that appears to be displaying the most muscle -- and a desire to use it.

Bill Hennessy, co-founder of the St. Louis Tea Party, said that activists locally and nationally already are discussing how to deal politically with Republicans in Congress who voted for the debt-limit increase.

"The opposition among the tea party folks is universal,'' Hennessy said. The chief internal debate, he added, is over how bad the deal may turn out to be.

Hennessy's concern is about the deal's bipartisan "super committee'' of 12 House and Senate members charged with crafting the particulars of the second round of $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years, beginning in 2013.

Tea party activists oppose giving a small group such powers, he said, and also object that the cuts don't go into effect until 2013.

Hennessy said that tea party anger nationally is primarily directed at House leaders, notably Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. In Missouri, the focus is on such pro-deal Republicans as U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who heads the chamber's moderate Tuesday Group.

Tea party activists are discussing whether to seek and support primary challengers, Hennessy said.

More attention is being placed on Republican incumbents than candidates, he added, because those already in office had to actually cast a vote on the debt-ceiling proposal. "I think that people put a lot of weight on where you stand when you take a stand,'' Hennessy said.

That is why, he added, that many area tea party activists are especially happy with U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, who voted against the debt-ceiling increase -- and had declared that he wasn't frightened by the threat of a default by the federal government.

"We respect people who stand by their principles,'' Hennessy said -- adding that he doesn't put much stock in candidates who issue statements after a vote.

Akin's opposing vote, the tea party leader added, could give the congressman an advantage in his quest for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. Akin's only announced GOP rival is former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, although St. Louis businessman John Brunner is expected to jump in soon. Steelman declared her opposition to the debt ceiling hike early Monday; since then, Brunner's allies have been privately contending that he opposed the plan as well.

McCaskill stakes out middle ground

All three are vying to challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who voted in favor of the debt-ceiling increase. But Connor believes that she got a political break because U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., also backed the deal. "The fact that Sen. Blunt voted for it, gives Claire some cover,'' the professor said.

Blunt has maintained that the final deal wasn't his preferred option but was preferable to default.

As for McCaskill, her allies contend that she won't face too much flack from the left -- and that she stands to gain politically from the middle.

The senator and her staff have said that most of the public comments she received prior to the vote were from political independents who simply sought compromise -- and were angry not to see much of it in Washington.

More telling, perhaps, have been McCaskill's public statements in the last few days. She has peppered her comments with the words "extremists'' and "extreme'' in her references to opponents.

Democrats privately and publicly say such words are aimed at politically defining likely GOP challengers -- notably tea party-favorite Akin.

St. Louis Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby predicts that the debt-ceiling debate will likely fade as a big issue by mid-2012, unless the congressional commission gets embroiled in a battle over budget cuts -- or tax increases.

In any case, said Wahby, McCaskill and allied Democrats will be seen as "better than the alternative."

Looking over the political landscape at present, consultant Zemitzsch isn't sure that anybody in Washington can claim to be winner. "It's kind of like a Quentin Tarantino movie,'' the consultant said. "By the end of the scene, everybody is dead on the floor."

But Hennessy begs to differ. The tea party may take issue with the final deal, he said, but there's no question that it achieved a victory by controlling the debate.

"For two weeks," said Hennessy, "the entire national conversation was on the dangers of debt."

But not everyone in the audience was pleased with the spectacle.

William Fogarty, a Democrat and retired physician from Webster Groves, called the debate "a discouraging episode because neither side was willing to put the country's interest above ideology.''

Ronald Riess, 68 and a political independent, said he is very concerned about the nation's debt. But what he saw during the debt-ceiling debate has convinced Riess that the federal government and Congress are "dysfunctional."

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