Leaving a House Republican caucus meeting one morning, Rep. Vicky Hartzler had to pause a moment to get her bearings.
She was on her way to an Armed Services Committee hearing, but navigating the maze of corridors beneath the Capitol could still puzzle her.
Hartzler's political compass, however, always stays on course. She's true to the fed-up-with-Washington tea party movement, which helped elect her and many others among the 87 House freshmen in 2010. Her experience mirrors theirs --and frames the stakes facing the now widely unpopular House Republican caucus as its members seek re-election this November.
Hartzler arrived 13 months ago from Missouri's 4th Congressional District as a giant killer. She had toppled one of the chamber's most senior Democrats, former Rep. Ike Skelton, the powerful chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a veteran of more than three decades on Capitol Hill.
The 51-year-old farmer, former high school home economics teacher and state legislator embraced tea party anger and social conservative causes. Her votes reflected the grassroots movement's mission: cut spending and taxes, reduce the deficit and repeal the 2010 health care law.
And most importantly: Don't back down.
"We are a voice of a large portion of America right now, and we were sent here to stop spending money we don't have, get us back to a balanced budget, adhere to the Constitution and defend individual freedoms and liberties," Hartzler said in a recent interview.
Now she's running for re-election at a time when national polls show the public is weary of political stalemate and overwhelmingly wants more compromise. The tea party brand may not be as electric this year as it was in 2010. Meanwhile, the slowly improving economy could rob Republicans of their biggest issue.
Democrats, even in Hartzler's Midwestern district -- a large swath of central western Missouri stretching from the Kansas border to halfway across the Show Me State -- are guardedly optimistic.
Hartzler has a reputation as a hard worker. She takes notes during the Missouri delegation's monthly breakfast get-togethers. She has voted to freeze her own pay and sponsored legislation to make it easier for small and rural businesses to obtain loans.
Her biggest accomplishment, she said, has been to help block the condemnation of 1,200 homes at Lake of the Ozarks because they were too close to the shoreline created by the federally regulated hydroelectric Bagnell Dam.
But constant brinksmanship has been what many will likely remember about this Congress. With each standoff, the dysfunction has grown. Public disapproval reached record levels last year and Republicans have gotten the worst of it, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll last month.
Hartzler blamed the news media.
"I think people are only being told one side of the story," she said. "I've gone to town halls and people say, 'Why don't you pass a jobs bill?' We (House Republicans) passed 30."
Energized by the freshmen, they also pushed the government to the edge of default during the summer 2011 debt-ceiling debate, and threatened a government shutdown over the budget.
And because Republicans in the House were so frustrated with the Democratic-run Senate, they passed a bill to thwart the Constitution. It would create a process that would allow a House bill to become law without passage by the Senate or the president's signature.
Still, in flexing its muscles, Hartzler's freshman class shifted the conversation to its preferred ground, said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at George Washington University.
"You have to credit the freshmen class for changing the terms of the debate by putting deficit reduction first and foremost, even in a recession when Democrats were not focused on that at all," she said.
Like others in the tea party, Hartzler came to Congress to change it, not make a career out of it. She grew up working on her family's farm. She and her husband operate a 1,600-acre spread in Harrisonville, where they raise cattle, corn and soybeans. They also sell farm machinery.
Hartzler is one of the wealthier members of the House, as are many members of the House Tea Party Caucus. Her most recent personal financial disclosure report, which values assets in income ranges, listed her net worth between $3.2 million and nearly $15 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign watchdog group.
The Hartzlers received $774,489 in federal crop subsidies between 1995 and 2009. Subsidies were among the spending programs targeted by the tea party.
Asked a year ago in an ABC News interview whether she would vote to eliminate them, Hartzler dodged the question. Now, she says she would.
Her district is a collection of mostly rural counties south and east of Kansas City. The coffee shops, courthouses and chambers of commerce meetings are its political lifeblood.
"Retail politics is very important," said James Harris, a Missouri Republican strategist.
On paper, Hartzler should not face a difficult re-election this year. The voters are mostly white, mostly native Missourians, and increasingly Republican. Even when Skelton won in 2008, Sen. John McCain beat President Barack Obama in the district by 23 percentage points.
"Democrats are on life support in rural Missouri under Obama," said David Wasserman, a House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Democrats only held this district because Skelton was who he was."
But with the economy slowly improving, there's a growing suspicion in both parties that the House could end up in play. Political history argues against it. So does the high hurdle Democrats face to win the more than two dozen seats such as Hartzler's needed to reclaim the majority.
But some Democrats in Missouri are cautiously hopeful. Their likely candidate, Cass County Prosecuting Attorney Teresa Hensley, is -- like Hartzler -- well-known, popular and a Cass County native.
The seat's borders also have been redrawn by redistricting and will include Boone County in central Missouri, which is Democratic turf. Hartzler also might not have been anticipating a fight. She raised only $71,000 last quarter and has $244,000 in the bank.
"We're seeing the job market improve, we're seeing part of the Democratic health care plan kick in, we're no longer in Iraq, and we got Osama (bin Laden)," said Don Long, chairman of the Cass County Democratic Party. "This isn't going to be 2010."
Republican State Sen. Chris Molendorp, who knows both Hensley and Hartzler, said the congresswoman is "kind of a hometown hero" and will be tough to beat. "She is really hitting her stride."
Anger at Washington and mistrust of the president and the Democrats helped catapult her to Congress, but Hartzler's faith has long been one of her galvanizing principles. She says her night table reading includes the Bible and devotional quotations from the patriots of 1776. She also wrote a book about campaigning called "Running God's Way."
Her social agenda -- chiefly, opposing abortion and same-sex marriage -- has sometimes led to controversy, like when she compared same-sex marriage to incest, polygamy or marrying children, at a conservative forum last June. Hartzler said she was misinterpreted, that she only meant that legalizing gay marriage "put us on a potential slippery slope."
Her convictions run deep, a trait shared by the devout and politically ambitious alike. With a young daughter, she called the runs for office a family sacrifice, but they felt "called to do this for our country."
In an interview with the American Family Association, a Christian group, at the start of her term, Hartzler was more expansive:
"The reality is that the good people of this country who love it, who love God, who love each other, who are concerned about the pro-abortion, pro-homosexual agenda of the current administration, they were the ones that got down on their knees and started praying for this country after the '08 election."