AKRON, N.Y.—I walk into Jack Davis' factory, a brown brick fortress near the center of this tiny town. A secretary gets up from her desk to tell him about his guest. Seconds later, a 78-year-old man wearing black slacks and a comfortable-looking short-sleeved white shirt marches to the door to greet me. He shakes my hand. He doesn't let go. He swings around his left arm to grab my bicep and he pulls us both into his office, as if we are old friends from the football team and we're about to watch highlight reels.
"Tell me a little about yourself!" he says. He's serious. He listens to a truncated version of my autobiography, making occasional editorial comments as he looks for a few things on his desk. There's a dud grenade with a No.1 on the pin, and a joke suggestion for people to "take a number" to complain. There's a stack of cards for his business, the I Squared R Element Company Inc.
"It's a weird name, isn't it?" he says. "It's Joule's Law for the conversion of electric energy. That's what we do. That's what we do. We make heating elements. No one else can do this."
Next to that, there's a stack of cards for his part-time job of the moment: his campaign as the Tea Party candidate to represent New York's 26th congressional district. There's a sheet of note paper with lines for a possible speech: "Both major parties will keep on flushing our taxes down the outsource drain!" There's the script of a new radio ad, the cut-down version—literally, lines cut out and reorganized next to one another, as if William Burroughs had gotten a look at them. And there are stacks of direct mail and door hangers, funded by the $3 million Davis has pledged to move from his bank account into this campaign, all marked with the reminder to "VOTE May 24."
The campaign to win the 26th has sucked in millions of dollars from outside groups, almost $3 million of Republican candidate Jane Corwin's personal fortune, and resources from national Democrats. They want to prove that Rep. Paul Ryan's budget has so re-toxified the GOP that Republicans can lose even in a conservative district carved out especially for them. And the Democrats' job might be made easier because Davis is running as the Tea Party candidate and running radio ads claiming to be an "independent conservative." He's polling in the low 20s. His red, white, and blue signs are scattered all over the western part of the district.
Is Davis a spoiler? He shrugs.
"You think I care about the parties?" says Davis. "I've left both of the parties. They've left me. Now, here's something you don't hear other people say. The two parties, they're owned by the corporations. You cannot trust them. You cannot."
Time to explain how this started. In 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney scheduled a trip to upstate New York. Davis, who'd always been a Republican, bought a full-page newspaper ad challenging the Bush administration's free trade policy, and showed up at the event. He never got to talk to Cheney. He was pissed.
But Davis' congressman, Tom Reynolds, was a Republican, and Davis had no chance of taking his nomination away. So Davis made a deal with Democrats: Let him run on their ballot line, and he'd spend his money to tear the bark off Reynolds. In 2004, a pretty good year for Republicans, Davis cut Reynolds's winning margin from 51 points to 11 points. In 2006, Reynolds was nearly subsumed by the Mark Foley scandal, and he beat Davis by only 4 points—a victory some wags here credit to an early blizzard that let Reynolds take over the airwaves as he brought relief money home. No blizzard, and Davis might have become a member of Congress.
That election was tantalizing for Democrats. When Reynolds announced his retirement, they realized they could do without Davis. At last! He was simpatico with them on abortion, and Iraq, and … basically nothing else. They got a new candidate. But Davis didn't stop running. He tore down the Democrats' new candidate so effectively that a third, weak candidate ending up winning the Democratic primary and then losing to the GOP's Reynolds replacement: a handsome, Craigslist-surfing man named Chris Lee. We know how that turned out.
Davis doesn't regret running these campaigns. He just regrets that he ran them as a Democrat. That made it impossible for him to win the GOP's nomination this year, and it spawned ad after ad in which he—a Republican for years!—is portrayed as a Democratic pawn. A new ad paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, eschewing subtlety, even portrays Davis and Democratic candidate Kathy Hochul as dancing puppets being jerked around by Nancy Pelosi, who is grinning like a Killer Klown from Outer Space. Davis' own ads take harder aim at Corwin than at Hochul, but that could be explained by strategy or by pique.
"I'd have an easier time now if I'd always filed petitions and run third party," he says. "I'm poison to the Republicans now."
But he never fit within either party. If elected, he says, he'd caucus with the Republican Party, but he doesn't like what the GOP's stood for recently. Davis is running on a promise to try and dismantle the trade deals passed since the 1980s. "Ross Perot predicted all of this," says Davis. "It's the 'giant sucking sound.' The only thing he got wrong is that the sucking sound is not coming from Mexico. It's China."
Ask Davis about any issue, and he'll bring it back to China. Would he reform entitlements? No. "If we all had good-paying jobs, there wouldn't have been a recession, we wouldn't lose our homes, we wouldn't lose our health care, and we wouldn't leave this debt for our children." Would he vote to raise the debt ceiling? "The concession I'd want in order to vote for that is to get us out of the WTO. That's a big concession, right? Well, we need to do it."
After we talk for a while, Davis takes me into his official campaign office—that would be the office right next to his—to watch a mostly finished copy of a new ad. In it, a man comes home, informs his family that he's lost his job, and sets off a Willie Loman chain of events.
"The company's moving the factory to China."
"How can we pay for my chemotherapy without health insurance?"
"Will mom be OK?"
"What do you think of that?" asks Davis. "Some of the women in the office saw that, and they cried."
When you spend a little time in the district, the Republican ads claiming Davis is a Democrat look silly. Yes, the Tea Party Express, which was co-founded by Republican strategists, came to the district this week to denounce Davis and endorse Corwin. Two members of Congress who were boosted by the Tea Party, Allen West and Marco Rubio, have cut calls for Corwin. But Davis, in his way, is the embodiment of the Tea Party, a one-man spokesperson for its fear of American decline. He's a pure nationalist who thinks that America got off track at some point, and that the boom days of the 1950s can return if taxes are low and trade deals get shredded. He reads Lou Dobbs and Paul Craig Roberts. He hates politicians. It takes some effort, when asked about his opponents, to judge them as "adequate," because, like everyone in the Tea Party, he thinks if you've been in politics you've contracted the virus that's come close to ruining this country.
"I'm not going to be like any congressman," says Davis. "Not to brag, but I'm not like any man. I started this company in my garage. You're here. You see the size of this establishment. When I die, I'm giving this company to my employees. I'm spending $3 million on this campaign. You name somebody else who has those credentials."
Before we wrap up, Davis puts on a jacket and takes me through a tour of his factory, past furnaces and rows and rows of heat conductors about to be sold and shipped. I ask him why some Chinese company hasn't just figured out how to do this and forced him out of business.
"Well, we're smarter than they are," he says. "They're good at copying but we're more likely to take a chance. Our minds work better at being innovative."
Mark Stonebreaker, a 33-year employee, takes a breather to explain why he's voting for Davis.
"This guy started a business in his garage," says Stonebreaker. "You look at all the regulation we've gotten since then, and all the business China is doing. Could anyone do that if they tried to right now? Could you start a business in your garage?"
"Yeah," interrupts Davis. "I could do it."