Indiana poised to play major role in battle for Congress

His entry – delayed by a major snowstorm – only deepens the intriguing set of Congressional elections that have launched across the state and will likely draw another round of national attention to Indiana. It is a fascinating array of circumstances that are generating these candidacies.

With President Obama, we have the first African-American head of state, having inherited an almost unprecedented list of major problems. In heading off a second Great Depression and forcing Chrysler and General Motors into quick bankruptcy, the methods used have ignited a political kickback along with a 10 percent jobless rate. Obama promised to address the health care dilemmas facing many Americans. With Congressional leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid driving the outcome, health care could play a similar role as the 1994 backlash to the Clinton administration’s efforts to do the same. It helped ignite the tidal wave that brought Republicans into control in Congress.

The tribal Tea Party movement has sprung up in a number of locations across the state and while loosely organized and without a charismatic leader as of yet, it has thrown a wild card into the mix. Sodrel, along with former Republican congressman John Hostettler who is attempting to challenge U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, have been courting the Tea Party movement. 

Hostettler, who served six terms until U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth soundly defeated him in 2006, fits the Tea Party profile. He actually supported the Constitutional presidential candidate Chuck Baldwin in 2008 over U.S. Sen. John McCain. “We can’t afford to have Harry Reid and Evan Bayh in Congress for the next six years,” Hostettler said in his campaign YouTube kickoff in early December. State Sen. Marlin Stutzman, Winchester financier Don Banks Jr., and Tea Party activist Richard Behney are also seeking to challenge Bayh.

Bayh has a $13 million war chest and many observers believe he will be re-elected, but that was conventional wisdom when another young Republican – Dan Quayle – upset his father in the 1980 race Evan Bayh managed.

Sodrel’s re-entry has almost a Hatfield vs. McCoy feel to it. He and Rep. Hill despise each other after butting heads four times since 2002. Hill holds a 3-1 edge in victories, losing only in 2004. Sodrel senses that Hill’s vote on health care and Cap-and-Trade legislation leaves the Democrat vulnerable. And he’s not the only one who feels that way. Todd Young, a Bloomington attorney and deputy Orange County prosecutor, has been campaigning through most of 2009.  He’s raised around a quarter million dollars so far. He also has the endorsements of Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, Treasurer Richard Mourdock, Secretary of State Todd Rokita, Auditor Tim Berry and Attorney General Greg Zoeller. So there could be quite a lively Republican primary before anyone confronts Hill.

In the 5th Congressional District, four Republicans – State Rep. Mike Murphy, former legislator Luke Messer, Brose McVey and Dr. John McGoff – are challenging U.S. Rep. Dan Burton in May’s primary. McGoff came within seven percent of upsetting Burton in 2008 and might have come closer if Independents and some Democrats hadn’t been drawn to the Obama-Hillary Clinton presidential primary. Many believe Burton survives with four challengers and at this point, it doesn’t look like that field will winnow.

McGoff is one of three challengers with a medical background, which sets the stage for the health reforms playing a major role. In the 8th CD, Dr. Larry Buschon, an Evansville cardiologist, is challenging Ellsworth. And in northeastern Indiana, Dr. Tom Hayhurst, a Democratic former Fort Wayne councilman, will run a second race against U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, who defeated him handily in 2006. Souder has been a vociferous foe to the Obama health care reforms.

Finally, State Rep. Jackie Walorski, Jimtown, is challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly in the 2nd CD. This is Indiana’s most competitive district, changing hands in 2006 when Donnelly defeated Rep. Chris Chocola, who now heads the Club for Growth and will play a role in Republican attempts to retake the House. Walorski describes herself as a “Glenn Beck” Republican while Donnelly sits as a classic fiscally conservative Blue Dog.

It’s much too early to forecast whether the challengers will have much traction. If Burton and Sodrel lose their primaries, it will stoke speculation of an anti-incumbency trend.

Democrats traditionally lose an average of 24 seats in a president’s first mid-term. Health reforms have the potential of driving those numbers up. But it all really may come down to how the economy is doing.

(Howey publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)

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