NASHVILLE — Watch out, Washington: "Walmart moms" say they're angry, even disgusted over the antics that led to a partial government shutdown and left the nation tottering on the brink of defaulting on its bills.
Even as Congress voted Wednesday night to crawl out of the mess until early next year, a group of 10 swing voters in Nashville, known as "Walmart moms," were brought together around a table where they blasted the politicians they held responsible for the situation.
"It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion," said Cathy, a 53-year-old nurse and mother of three who voted for President Barack Obama last year. "If I was talking to a bunch of fifth-graders, I'd say someone's trying to take your ball and go home."
Financial analyst Elizabeth, 33, who has a young child and voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, said "the American people are the losers and they [Washington politicians] are losers because they're putting us through this."
The agreement struck by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., funds agencies through mid-January, calls hundreds of thousands of civil servants back to work and suspends the federal debt limit until Feb. 7.
The Nashville focus group is part of an annual project, now sponsored by retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., in cities across the country. It had its beginnings in 2008 when a Republican pollster began looking at Wal-Mart shoppers as the next "soccer moms."
All Wednesday's participants were mothers who had shopped at Wal-Mart within the past 30 days and have at least one child under 18. All are swing voters who voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, for congressional Republicans in 2010 and who split between Obama and Romney in 2012. Only the women's first names were made available.
Nashville's 10-mom event as well as a similar one in Kansas City were put together by national Republican and Democratic pollsters with Public Opinion Strategies and Purple Strategies.
The mothers' ages were from 25 to 52, with incomes ranging from under $25,000 to $75,000.
Their personal stories revealed lives disrupted by the 2008 Great Recession. Some lost jobs -- one woman in her 50s said she and her husband remain jobless. Another's life was split by divorce. A mother with a doctoral degree described how she and her husband had to move in with family after losing their house.
But they've cut costs. Skipped lunch at times to make ends meet. Most said their lives are on track or are getting back on track.
Then came last month's political whirlwind, with its unwelcome uncertainty. They used "frustration," "helplessness" and "disgust" to describe their feelings.
Being mothers, their frame of reference was often children and family.
Cass, 40, a restaurant worker who voted for Obama last year, said 5-year-olds have their act better together than Congress.
"Everything that they're not doing is what we all learned in kindergarten," she said. "They're supposed to be working for us, and it's ridiculous."
Julia, 42, a project manager who supported Romney, worried that the country is coming to an "unrepairable great divide" between Republicans and Democrats.
"Compromise is no longer in their vocabulary," she said of Congress.
Some were reluctant to blame any particular party. Several held Republicans responsible. But all agreed they're disgusted with everyone.
"I think they're all guilty," Cass said.
Jeanne, 52, an unemployed mother of three who voted for Obama, called today's partisan politics "disgusting." But she primarily blamed Republicans "because they're the ones who are pitching this hissy fit" in an effort to take down the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Thirty-five-year-old Mahogny, who has one child and was one of two black women participating, voted for Romney last year. The shutdown, she said, "is throwing a monkey wrench in everybody's trust" in government.
"It's both sides," said Elizabeth, the financial analyst.
Karyn, a 25-year-old mother of a 4-year-old who didn't vote for a major party presidential candidate, said her preferred solution is to "throw them all out."
Washington politicians could care less about people like them except during election time, the women generally agreed.
"I think they care about getting my vote; I don't think they care about me as a person," said 30-year-old Jaclyn, a music teacher with a 2-year-old.
Elizabeth was critical of U.S. senators' and representatives' workloads, suggesting they loafed at taxpayer expense as they were putting the nation in turmoil.
"It seems like they're always on hiatus or vacations, [working] half days ... conferences and things like that. It doesn't seem like they're working as hard as we're working," she said.
The women said the message they're imparting to their children is don't depend on government. It's a lesson they say they've learned themselves in the past few years.
Their preferred candidate would be a woman. Someone tough, one mother said. Others say they intend to pay much more attention to political races, especially party primaries, which in many congressional districts amount to the real election because districts are drawn so one-sided these days.
Democratic pollster Margie Omero with Purple Strategies said one of her takeaways was the women view their own situations, even in the midst of serious personal struggles, more positively than strife-torn Washington.
And the mothers are definitely unhappy with elected politicians, she said.
"Every bond is broken. They feel a lack of trust," Omero said. "They feel no one's paying attention to them. ... They are not feeling a connection with Washington. Some feel it's a permanent situation that Washington is broken and we can no longer fix it."
Politico, an online political magazine, quoted Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, co-founder and partner at Public Opinion Strategies, as saying the women's attitudes toward Washington dysfunction were "ruthlessly negative."
Omero said while the two focus groups are not statistically significant in and of themselves, they do reflect and amplify with a lot of detail what pollsters are seeing in statistical surveys.
But U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, who represents Nashville, said, "Nashville moms should be upset with Congress. As a longtime reformer, I agree with their message: Congress failed, Americans know it, and no one is forgetting anytime soon."
In Tennessee's U.S. House delegation vote on a Senate bipartisan compromise Wednesday, the split was along partisan lines, with the seven Republicans voting no and two House Democrats saying yes.
U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Republicans, backed the Senate deal. Alexander soon was denounced by his GOP primary opponent, Joe Carr, for doing so.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., is defending the partisan standoff, with spokesman Robert Jameson saying "the overwhelming majority of constituents who've reached out to our office have told the Congress they want to hold firm, that any short-term suspension of government services would pale in comparison to the detrimental effects of either the Affordable Care Act or unchecked deficit spending."
"The only person who was seriously considering defaulting was President Obama," he added.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...