By DAVID A. LIEB
ST. ROBERT, Mo. - There was a tinge of apprehension behind some of the smiles at the ribbon-cutting for the Liberty Lodge. And underneath the updates about a new public swimming pool and potential bus service, there was an unspoken uncertainty among some at the local chamber luncheon.
Fort Leonard Wood, the source of nearly all economic activity in this rural south-central Missouri community, had just lost its longtime protector in a November election that swept more than 50 incumbents out of Congress. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton no longer would be looking out for the military posts in his home district.
"It's a time of anxiety," said Steve Lynch, a third-generation owner of a family furniture and appliance store in St. Robert that relies on military families for most of its sales.
Voters across the county this year ousted veteran lawmakers - adept at using their powerful positions to steer federal money and projects toward their districts - in favor of newcomers who pledged to rein in government spending and ridiculed earmarked pork projects.
It's no knock on the winners. But the swap has left some residents - even those who support a general change of direction for the nation - feeling a little uneasy in communities where road-pavers, retailers and real estate agents all indirectly have relied on the incumbents' clout.
In three races alone, voters ditched a combined 98 years of congressional experience.
Skelton, a Democrat who first won election with President Jimmy Carter, is being exchanged for Republican Vicky Hartzler, a farmer and former home economics teacher and state lawmaker. In South Carolina, voters dumped House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt - who also is second in seniority on Armed Services - in favor of Republican state Sen. Mick Mulvaney. And Minnesota voters parked 36-year incumbent Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, in favor of former airline pilot Chip Cravaack.
Oberstar produced concrete results in Minnesota by securing bridge, road, rail, bicycle and pedestrian projects. When Minnesota Highway 8 gained notoriety for its fatal accidents, for example, Oberstar got money for turn lanes, traffic signals and paved shoulders.
Statewide, "his impact has to be into the tens of billions of dollars," said Tim Worke, director of the highway division for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota.
Skelton used sway to bring additional troops, equipment and construction to the Army, Air Force and National Guard bases in his district.
As Whiteman Air Force Base was losing its long-range nuclear missiles, Skelton secured its future in the late 1980s by getting the Defense Department to place the new B-2 bomber there. And Skelton played a significant role in assuring that Fort Leonard Wood emerged a victor in a 1995 base realignment, gaining chemical warfare and military police programs.
Fort Leonard Wood has an estimated $2.1 billion annual impact on the local economy.
Because of the Army's steady work force, the area's unemployment rate has remained well below than the national average. And as the housing market tanked elsewhere, the Fort Leonard Wood community of Waynesville set a record for new housing starts in 2009.
Though there is no immediate threat of closing the post, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the defense budget may naturally grow smaller.
"Those are very dangerous times for military bases and communities around military bases," said Keith Pritchard, chairman of Security Bank in Waynesville, who is "extremely concerned" about the loss of the House Armed Services Committee chairman.
"We voted for change. I sure hope we don't get more change than we voted for," Pritchard said.
Skelton and Spratt both ran for re-election on their ability to provide for the military. Chamber of Commerce officials in Sumter, S.C., note that Spratt's seemingly annual earmark for nearby Shaw Air Force Base has resulted in a new library, dormitories, and child care, educational and fitness centers.
"Losing him takes away a lot, and you don't just gain that back with one election," said Grier Blackwelder, president of the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce.
The loss of Spratt's influence could be lessened because South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson is in line to become an Armed Services subcommittee chairman.
In Missouri, some concerns over Skelton's departure were eased when Republican House Leader John Boehner pledged to support Hartzler for a seat on the Armed Services Committee. Arkansas Rep. John Boozman got a similar pledge for a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee if he defeated the committee's chairwoman, Democrat Blanche Lincoln. Boozman won easily.
Mike Freeze, who runs a fish farm southeast of Little Rock, Ark., says he is somewhat concerned about losing an incumbent with a track record of delivering for farmers - even though he believes Lincoln's replacement is a good guy.
"We're losing that clout that comes from having the chairman of any committee," he said.