TOPEKA — Cheryl Hudspeth arrived in Topeka alone for a campaign visit, no entourage or staff. Just Hudspeth in the family van after the long drive from southeast Kansas.
Hudspeth, a Democrat from Girard, admits the size of the 2nd Congressional District makes it tough for a candidate to reach from the Oklahoma state line in the south to the northern tier of counties bordering Nebraska. Voters may not know her well, Hudspeth said, but they know her opponent, Republican Lynn Jenkins.
"Most people are confused what district they're in, but as soon as I tell them who I am running against they know precisely who their representative is and how unhappy they are," Hudspeth said. "People are feeling they aren't getting good representation."
Jenkins is seeking her second term in Washington. Also on the ballot is Libertarian Robert Garrard of Edgerton.
Jenkins is a political veteran, having served one term each in the Kansas House and Senate before a stint as state treasurer. In 2008, she defeated incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda.
Jenkins was once largely identified with Republican moderates. She then received a 92 percent rating from the American Conservative Union for 2009, her first year in Congress.
She's become a reliable vote in the House against President Obama's legislative agenda, most notably the $862 billion economic stimulus package in 2009. Jenkins said cutting taxes would do more to stimulate the economy, and she's outraged at the size of the federal debt.
"Washington can spend all it wants, but is not going to grow us out of this slump," Jenkins said.
The threat of expiring tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and government regulation are keeping companies and small businesses who otherwise might be looking to invest in the economy from investing, she said.
Hudspeth disagrees that the cuts should be extended for all. She said the government made the mistake of making the cuts shortly after President George W. Bush took office, then launched two wars without the means to pay for them.
"The issue is not to provide more stimulus, but how do you put $2 trillion worth of wealth back to work here," she said. "People are investing in jobs overseas."
She said that may require the easing of regulations and creating more public-private projects to get people working, not just more tax cuts.
Jenkins has been critical of the 2010 health care reform bill championed by Obama and the Democrats. She, like a majority of conservatives in Congress, wants to see the act de-funded, repealed and replaced with alternatives. Among the biggest complaints is that the act is too onerous for small businesses and will stymie growth as the nation's economic recovery limps along.
"The majority of Kansans would like to see it repealed and replaced with something dealing with the issue at hand," Jenkins said. "The Obama bill did nothing to deal with the rising costs."
She said there were a host of small steps that Congress could take instead of the massive reform, including allowing individuals to purchase health insurance across state lines and expanding the use of health savings accounts.
"My hope is the president can come to the table and be willing to compromise," Jenkins said. "If not, we will send a bill over once a week until he comes around."
Hudspeth isn't a cheerleader for the health care act either, but says it needs time to be implemented and the bugs worked out, much like it took a decade or more to refine Social Security and Medicare.
One of the criticisms of the health care act is the government entering the market to compete against private insurers. But Hudspeth said there are situations where families have pre-existing conditions or are in high-risk pools and they can't find affordable policies in the private sector.
"The idea that the government shouldn't be in the market is fine, but when the market fails to provide a product that's needed, then the government steps in," Hudspeth said.
Hudspeth's personal experience drives her view on health care. Her husband suffered severe injuries in a car accident in 2006 and uses a wheelchair. She became his full-time caretaker after the wreck. That has forced her to wrangle with insurance companies over benefits.
She suggests the government sell policies so high-risk Americans lacking health insurance can buy into Medicare.
"The private sector doesn't want a public option because they are afraid they will lose business," Hudspeth said.
Jenkins anticipates many changes in Washington come January. She hopes the new faces come ready to stand up for the issues.
"This new group of Republicans in Washington is attempting to restore some trust in Congress. That's not going to happen overnight," she said. "We have to earn back people's trust. We're attempting to do that right now."