JEFFERSON CITY — When something is broken, you:
a) throw it away.
b) replace it.
c) fix it.
The correct answer in the 2010 political season: You fix it.
That's the assertion, at least, of a pair of candidates from opposite political parties running for legislative seats in Washington in two of Missouri's most high-profile contests in the Nov. 2 elections.
Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who is running for U.S. Senate, and former state Rep. Vicky Hartzler, the Republican nominee for Missouri's 4th Congressional District, both have been talking about fixing things that are broken.
Carnahan evokes her family farm experience in nearly every campaign speech, noting that it has taught her some important lessons. "One of those is if something breaks, you fix it," Carnahan says.
Hartzler similarly draws on her experience as a farmer and small business owner while closing her TV commercials by saying: "Around here, when something's broken, we fix it."
What's broken, according to Hartzler and Carnahan, is Washington, D.C.
They may differ somewhat on exactly why it's broken and how to fix it. But those details may be less important than the overall ability of a candidate to empathize with Americans frustrated with the federal government, said Wayne Fields, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies political rhetoric and directs the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.
In an Associated Press-GfK poll last month, 57 percent said the country is headed in the wrong direction.
When candidates talk about fixing what's broken, "it's a catchall way of tapping into the general sense that things aren't working," Fields said.
"It's mostly an anti-incumbency approach, and to some extent it seems to work," Fields added. But if those fix-it candidates win, "they're going to face it in turn the next election because they're going to be the thing that's broken if it's simply incumbency that's at stake."
Hartzler is running against Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, a 24-year incumbent. Carnahan is running against Republican Rep. Roy Blunt, who though not a Senate incumbent has been in the House for 14 years.
Hartzler and Carnahan both site "back-room deals" allegedly made by their opponents as one example of how Washington is broken. But some of their other examples differ greatly.
For Carnahan, a broken Washington is best illustrated by wasteful spending, a culture of corruption and influence peddling and a propensity to bail out big corporations at the expense of the middle class.
For Hartzler, a broken Washington is best exemplified by the struggling economy, illegal immigration problems, the health care overhaul backed by President Barack Obama and tax rates that are due to rise next year unless Congress acts soon.
Hartzler acknowledges that a media consultant came up with the phrase — "Around here, when something's broken, we fix it, and that's what I'll do in Congress" — as a way to highlight her farm background. Her TV commercials show her in a workshop holding a wrench and in a farm field with gloved-hands on a wire fence.
Carnahan also appears in a TV commercial with gloved hands and cattle nearby.
Fewer than 2 percent of Americans actually farm for a living and just 17 percent now live in rural areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the ability to fix broken things "harkens back to these images that still are very powerful in the American imagination — about America's rural past," said Randy Hagerty, chairman of the political science department at Truman State University in Kirksville.
Farmers are viewed as "being very self-reliant, hardy people" who "do a lot of hard work, and when some thing is broke, they have the skill to fix it themselves," Hagerty said.
But in today's society, how many people actually fix things when they break?
Unless it's a particularly expensive item such as car, most consumer goods simply get thrown away when they break and replaced with a new, improved model.
Candidates could just as easily talk about throwing out the current politicians and replacing them a new model. But they wouldn't want to imply they're in favor of trashing the country. And "they're not about to say, 'Let's get rid of democracy,'" Fields said.
Fixing the problem carries better connotations, Fields said.
"It's a way of saying, in an odd sort of way, we're going to change things," he said.