Call them the Hoosier Three. Four years ago, Indiana Democrats Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth, and Baron Hill won election to Congress as part of a Democratic tidal wave. They are all avowedly pro-life Blue Dogs who represent conservative-leaning areas. But on Sunday night, they all voted to pass Obamacare.
Needless to say, their seats are juicy targets for Republicans. Though Donnelly won reelection by 37 percentage points in 2008, his northern Indiana district (the 2nd, which borders on Lake Michigan and includes South Bend) went for Barack Obama by only 9 points. The corresponding gap was even bigger in the 8th district, stretching from west-central Indiana down to Evansville on the Ohio River, where Ellsworth romped his way to a 30-point win and John McCain beat Obama by 4 points. In the neighboring 9th district, home to Indiana University at Bloomington, Hill cruised to victory by 20 points while McCain edged Obama by 2 points.
“There’s a very real possibility that we can pick all three of those [seats] up,” says an Indiana GOP official. The leading Republican candidate in the 2nd district is state legislator Jackie Walorski, 46, who traveled to Washington for the anti-Obamacare protests this past weekend. A former TV reporter, she has secured endorsements from the district GOP and various Republican county chairmen. Walorski has been hammering Donnelly, 54, over health care, and her campaign website
is promoting a petition that calls for the legislation to be repealed.
The 8th district has been dubbed the “Bloody Eighth” due to its competitive and volatile nature. This year, there will be no incumbent candidate, since the 51-year-old Ellsworth, who previously served as Vanderburgh County sheriff, is vying to replace retiring Democrat Evan Bayh in the U.S. Senate. The GOP frontrunner to fill Ellsworth’s seat is cardiothoracic surgeon and former naval reservist Larry Bucshon, 47. Last month, National Republican Congressional Committee chief Pete Sessions described Bucshon as “an accomplished, independent leader who has already built significant momentum behind his campaign.” Assuming he wins the primary, Bucshon will probably face off against Democratic state representative and former Posey County prosecutor Trent Van Haaften, 45, in the general election. The Bloody Eighth is known for its large and influential pro-life movement; indeed, Vanderburgh County Right to Life (VCRL) is among the strongest local anti-abortion groups in the country. (Sarah Palin made headlines when she addressed a VCRL banquet in April 2009.)
Next door in the 9th district, the 2010 campaign will most likely be a rematch of the 2008 race — and the 2006 race, and the 2004 race, and the 2002 race. Republican Mike Sodrel, first elected to Congress in 1998, lost his seat to Hill in 2002, reclaimed it two years later in a photo finish (Sodrel triumphed by less than 1 point), was defeated for a second time by Hill in 2006, and then lost badly in 2008. Now he’s running again. As the Indiana GOP official notes, Sodrel, 64, has a populist, blue-collar appeal that may play well in the current political environment. He is favored to emerge from the Republican primary. Last June, Hill, 56, backed the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade energy bill, which Donnelly and Ellsworth both opposed. That vote may haunt him: Indiana generates nearly all of its electricity from coal.
For Hoosier State Republicans, as for Republicans elsewhere, “2008 was just a hard year to recruit,” the Indiana GOP official says. “This year, we have no problem.”
– Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.