WASHINGTON — Leaving a House of Representatives Republican caucus meeting one morning, Rep. Vicky Hartzler had to pause a moment to get her bearings. She was on her way to an Armed Services Committee hearing, but navigating the maze of corridors beneath the Capitol could still puzzle her.
Hartzler's political compass, however, always stays on course. She's true to the fed-up-with-Washington tea party movement, which helped elect her and many others among the 87 House freshmen in 2010. Her experience mirrors theirs, and frames the stakes that the now widely unpopular House Republican caucus faces as its members seek re-election next November.
Hartzler arrived 13 months ago from Missouri's 4th Congressional District as a giant killer. She'd toppled one of the most senior Democrats in the House, former Rep. Ike Skelton, the powerful chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a veteran of more than three decades on Capitol Hill.
The 51-year-old farmer, former high school home economics teacher and state legislator embraced tea party anger and social conservative causes. Her votes reflected the grass-roots movement's mission: Cut spending and taxes, reduce the budget deficit and repeal the 2010 health care law.
And most importantly: Don't back down.
"We are a voice of a large portion of America right now, and we were sent here to stop spending money we don't have, get us back to a balanced budget, adhere to the Constitution and defend individual freedoms and liberties," Hartzler said in a recent interview.
Now she's running for re-election at a time when national polls show the public is weary of political stalemate and overwhelmingly wants more compromise. The tea party brand may not be as electric this year as it was in 2010. Meanwhile, the slowly improving economy could rob Republicans of their biggest issue.
Democrats, even in Hartzler's Midwestern district — a large swath of central western Missouri that stretches from the Kansas border to halfway across the Show Me State — are guardedly optimistic.
Hartzler has a reputation as a hard worker. She takes notes during the Missouri delegation's monthly breakfast get-togethers. She's voted to freeze her pay and has sponsored legislation to make it easier for small and rural businesses to obtain loans.
Her biggest accomplishment, she said, has been to help block the federal government from condemning 1,200 homes at Lake of the Ozarks because of a nearby hydroelectric project.
But the constant political brinkmanship has been what many probably will remember about this Congress. With each standoff, the dysfunction has grown. Public disapproval reached her record levels last year and Republicans have gotten the worst of it, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll last month.
Hartzler blamed the news media.
"I think people are only being told one side of the story," she said. "I've gone to town halls and people say, 'Why don't you pass a jobs bill?' We (House Republicans) passed 30."
Energized by the freshmen, they also pushed the government to the edge of default during last summer's debt-ceiling debate, and threatened a government shutdown over the budget.
And because Republicans in the us House were so frustrated with the Democratic-run Senate, they passed a bill to thwart the Constitution. It would create a process that would allow a House bill to become law without passage by the Senate or the president's signature.
Still, in flexing its muscles, Hartzler's freshman class shifted the political conversation to its preferred ground, said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at George Washington University.
"You have to credit the freshman class for changing the terms of the debate by putting deficit reduction first and foremost, even in a recession, when Democrats were not focused on that at all," she said.
Like others in the tea party, Hartzler came to Congress to change it, not to make a career out of it. She grew up working on her family's farm. She and her husband, Lowell Hartzler, operate a 1,600-acre spread in Harrisonville, where they raise cattle, corn and soybeans. They also sell farm machinery.
Hartzler is one of the wealthier members of the House, as are many members of the House Tea Party Caucus. Her most recent personal financial-disclosure report, which values assets in income ranges, listed her net worth at $3.2 million to nearly $15 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog group.
The Hartzlers received $774,489 in federal crop subsidies from 1995 two 2009. Subsidies were among the spending programs the tea party targeted.
Asked a year ago in an ABC News interview whether she'd vote to eliminate them, Hartzler dodged the question. Now she says she would.
On paper, Hartzler shouldn't face a difficult re-election this year. The voters are mostly white, mostly native Missourians and increasingly Republican. Even when Skelton won in 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain beat President Barack Obama in the district by 23 percentage points.
"Democrats are on life support in rural Missouri under Obama," said David Wasserman, a House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Democrats only held this district because Skelton was who he was."
But with the economy slowly improving, suspicion is growing in both parties that the House could end up in play. Political history argues against it. So does the steep hurdle Democrats face to win the more than two dozen seats — such as Hartzler's — that are needed to reclaim the majority.
Anger at Washington and mistrust of the president and other Democrats helped catapult her to Congress, but Hartzler's faith has long been one of her galvanizing principles. Her night table reading includes the Bible and devotional quotations from the patriots of 1776. She also wrote a book about campaigning, "Running God's Way."
Another is her social agenda; chiefly, opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. It's sometimes led to controversy, such as when she compared same-sex marriage to incest, polygamy or marrying children at a conservative forum last June. Hartzler said she was misinterpreted, that she meant only that legalizing gay marriage "put us on a potential slippery slope."
Her convictions run deep, a trait shared by the devout and politically ambitious alike. She has a young daughter, and said running for Congress was a family sacrifice, but they felt "called to do this for our country."
In an interview with the American Family Association, a Christian group, at the start of her term, Hartzler was more expansive:
"The reality is that the good people of this country who love it, who love God, who love each other, who are concerned about the pro-abortion, pro-homosexual agenda of the current administration, they were the ones that got down on their knees and started praying for this country after the '08 election."
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