Politics & Policy

Hot Senate Race in Indiana

Indiana Republicans have three strong contenders, and the odds are good that whichever one they choose will be the next senator.

It’s easy to conclude that Barack Obama’s political career is driven by a combination of good luck, hapless opponents, flowery speeches, and generous press coverage. But every once in a while, he has achieved something pretty astounding — like winning Indiana.

Since voting for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Indiana had preferred Republicans, often by wide margins, for ten straight presidential elections. But then, in 2008, a state that had preferred George W. Bush over John Kerry 60 percent to 39 percent narrowly voted for Obama, 50 percent to 49 percent, the biggest swing in any state. Obama pulled this off as Republican Mitch Daniels was winning reelection as governor with 58 percent of the vote.

But events since Election Day 2008 suggest that the swing to Obama was a one-time deal. The last two polls from Rasmussen have found his ratings down dramatically among Hoosiers. Last month’s poll found that “just 39 percent of voters in the state now approve of the job he is doing as president . . . Sixty percent disapprove of his job performance, including 47 percent who strongly disapprove.” Two of Indiana’s House Democrats, Joe Donnelly and Baron Hill, are sweating their chances for reelection (and some have wondered whether veteran congressman Pete Visclosky should be sweating, too), while the GOP is expected to retain its current four seats easily.

The 2010 Senate race wasn’t supposed to be all that competitive, even if Obama’s stock had dropped a bit from its November 2008 peak. Sen. Evan Bayh looked to be too well known and too highly regarded to be in danger even in a GOP tsunami year. He won with 62 percent of the vote in 2004 while Bush was carrying the state; it was the third consecutive statewide election that Bayh had won handily. But then Senator Bayh announced his retirement, citing an exhaustion with the partisan divide in the Senate. This created an open-seat race, in which Rep. Brad Ellsworth is expected to be the Democrats’ nominee.

Then came the vote on Obamacare. By voting for the bill, Ellsworth greatly complicated his mission of winning the Senate race. Rasmussen found that 65 percent of the state’s voters want to repeal the new law pushed through by the president and congressional Democrats, while only 29 percent oppose repeal. The number has been consistently “well above the level of opposition found nationally.” What’s more, 54 percent “strongly oppose” the new law, and 55 percent told the pollsters they fear the federal government more than private insurance companies when it comes to health-care decisions, while only 35 percent feel the reverse.

In an approach that is either innovative or shameless, Ellsworth is attempting to gloss over his two terms in Congress. His campaign biography declares, “With over two decades of experience in the local Sheriff’s office, Brad Ellsworth has spent his entire career protecting the people and communities of Indiana. During his brief time as the 8th District’s Congressman, Brad has developed a reputation as an independent voice and effective problem-solver for Hoosiers.” News stories featured on Ellsworth’s web site emphasize that he’s a “former lawman” and “still skeptical of cap-and-trade.” While an article about his health-care vote is in the archive, there is no indication on his campaign home page that he voted for the bill.

There are five Republicans running for the seat, with three considered serious contenders: former senator Dan Coats, former congressman John Hostettler (who lost to Ellsworth in 2006), and state senator Marlin Stutzman. In the latest poll by Rasmussen, all of them beat Brad Ellsworth — Coats by a 21-point margin, Hostettler by 17 points, and Stutzman by 5 points. If nothing major changes between now and November, the Democrat faces a ceiling of support at 36 percent.

Meanwhile, in the Republican primary contest, a blog focusing on state politics, the Hoosier Advocate, claims to have seen internal polling conducted by one of the candidates that has Coats favored by 29 percent of likely voters, Hostettler by 26 percent, and Stutzman by 18 percent. For conservatives, all three are in the “pretty reliable” category on most issues, with each one having some area of dissent from party orthodoxy.

In his previous terms as senator, Dan Coats (who was appointed to fill Dan Quayle’s seat when Quayle was elected vice president) had a lifetime ACU rating of 90. Russ Pulliam, former editorial-page editor of the Indianapolis News, calls him “one of the most effective limited-government conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s.”

But he had his exceptions. In 1993, he voted for the Brady Bill imposing federal handgun control, and that same year he voted to confirm Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Then again, most Senate Republicans voted to confirm Ginsburg; the dynamics of Supreme Court nominations were different then.) And this time around, Coats brings a few additional complications to the campaign. For one thing, he has lived in Virginia for about a decade. Since retiring as ambassador to Germany, he has worked as a lobbyist, collecting a roster of clients that could make attack-ad fodder: Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, Chrysler. In 2005, the Bush administration tapped him to help shepherd Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers through the Senate; we know how that turned out. Since he threw his hat into the ring this time, Coats’s fundraising has been a bit weak. Also, at age 66, Coats would presumably not be hoping to serve multiple terms.

John Hostettler’s lifetime ACU rating for his six terms in the House is 89. He was a member of the class of 1994, signing the Contract with America. A pattern emerged in his subsequent campaigns: He refused PAC money and was usually outspent by his Democratic opponent, and the national committees often had to help him out late in the race; even so, most years, he won a bit more than 50 percent of the vote. His luck ran out against Ellsworth in 2006.

Hostettler was rare among Republicans as an opponent of the Iraq War, and at times his objections echoed the most repellent lines of argument from liberal critics of the war. Hostettler even wrote a book about the war, in which, as Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, points out, he argues that President Bush was influenced by neoconservatives “with Jewish backgrounds” who were acting on behalf of Israel.

Hostettler opposes a ban on earmarks, and he did not give audiences the answer they wanted to hear when asked if he would pledge to read every bill he votes on: “I want to be truthful . . . I cannot guarantee when I cast a vote that I have read every piece [of the legislation].”

Finally, there is Marlin Stutzman, the youngster of the group, born in 1976. He got an early start in politics, winning election to Indiana’s House of Representatives in 2002, at the age of 26. In 2008, he was elected to the Indiana Senate.

Stutzman has won the endorsement of most of his fellow state senators, of RedState’s Erick Erickson, and of Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), chairman of the Senate Conservatives Fund. DeMint commended Stutzman for being the only candidate in the Indiana race to publicly endorse a one-year ban on congressional earmarks and a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to balance the federal budget. American Conservative Union chairman David Keene endorsed Stutzman on Monday, and said the ACU’s PAC would be helping him out.

But Stutzman may also draw some ire for his acceptance of federal farm subsidies; he received a total of $156,907.54 in subsidies from 1995 to 2006 for the family farm he co-owns with his father. He has called for “incrementally mov[ing] away from farm subsidies.”

Indiana Republicans will have to sort out which is their preferred man of this group, and while the winner won’t quite be a shoo-in, he should have a strong wind at his back. If Ellsworth wants help, the 2010 edition of Obama isn’t likely to do the trick. And the Obama of 2008 is not likely to reappear.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

 

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