LISBON, Ohio — The two-lane Lincoln Highway passes sparkling creeks, tree-lined valleys, coal-mine entrances and mom-and-pop motel lots filled with shale-industry workers’ muddy trucks on its way to this eastern Ohio town.
Two blocks west of the shining chrome Steel Trolley Diner, a neon-orange "Frack Obama" sign stands out in Lisbon’s otherwise serene Victorian downtown.
This is not your father’s Appalachia. And Barack Obama is not your father’s Democrat — which is a problem for two Democrats running for U.S. House seats in districts bordering this highway.
Each is looking to connect with voters in a different state — Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yet they share the same problem with remarkably similar electorates: running alongside a president who does not share their voters’ values.
In both districts, voters have broken away from Obama, though they are not quite sold on Republican Mitt Romney.
Charlie Wilson wants his old seat back: From 2006-10, he represented Ohio’s 6th Congressional District, with Lisbon in its middle. Then he lost to Republican Bill Johnson, whom no one — not even Washington’s Republicans — thought would win.
The district is composed of 12 counties rich in union workers, Catholics and other traditional Democrats; it borders Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, and has a storied history as reliable for Democrats.
That was before Washington’s Democrats made it difficult for Main Street’s moderate Democrats to represent their districts’ mood and makeup.
Johnson takes his role as a congressman literally.
"It is my job to reflect the needs, concerns and well-being of this unique community," he says of the 6th District. "Politics second, people first, and always creating the right environment to create jobs."
Back on the Lincoln Highway, four dump trucks chug slowly east toward East Liverpool, Ohio, then across the Jennings Randolph Bridge into West Virginia, then into Western Pennsylvania and the congressional district of Democrat Mark Critz.
Along the way, two billboards blast U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations for "Killing Coal." A handful of homemade signs tell Washington to back off the shale-gas industry.
Another billboard reminds travelers that God is watching them.
Critz knocked off fellow Democrat Jason Altmire in a contentious primary that forced the usually moderate Johnstown native further left than his conservative, newly redrawn district.
In November, Critz faces a tough challenge from Republican businessman Keith Rothfus, who barely lost to incumbent Altmire in 2010.
Back in Ohio, Wilson’s challenge is of his own making: The moderate Democrat lost in 2010 thanks to his support of Obama’s health-care bill; that vote, along with support for stimulus funding and other votes under then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, remain wildly unpopular in the 6th District.
West Virginia’s panhandle juts between Ohio and Pennsylvania and is home to the same voter mindset as those bordering states. West Virginia’s new governor, a southern Mountain State Democrat, said late last week that Obama "has apparently made it his mission to drive the backbone of West Virginia’s economy, coal and the energy industry, out of business … destroy(ing) the economic fabric of our state."
Obama is the problem for Critz, Wilson and a score of other Democrats campaigning for House seats across the country.
Republican Johnson won in 2010 on an anti-Obama wave — and Obama is on the ballot two years later. In 2006, House Democrats ran and won against George W. Bush — who’d disappeared from the scene two years later.
Neither Critz nor Wilson has such a political luxury this year.
While the latest Quinnipiac poll shows Obama still ahead of Romney in Pennsylvania, he has plunged in Ohio in a little more than a month. Romney does not need to win Pennsylvania but does need to keep it close; in contrast, Obama does need to win Ohio.
To win back or hold House seats, Democrats such as Critz and Wilson not only have to distance themselves from Obama; they have to disavow their party’s president, too.
If they don’t, not only will they lose; they will help Romney unseat Obama.