Indiana, Republican Bastion, May Favor Democrats in House Races
By Laura Litvan
Indiana, where President George W. Bush won 60 percent of the vote two years ago, was supposed to be the political floodwall against any Democratic tide in this year's congressional elections. The dam may now be cracking.
Democrats have a chance to pick up three Republican-held House seats in the state as voters register their discontent over the Iraq war, the loss of thousands of jobs and unpopular decisions by Republican Governor Mitch Daniels.
"I think fence-sitters who don't necessarily vote in every election have gotten fed up with the Republicans in general,'' said Max Schut, a 43-year-old registered Republican who lives in South Bend and works at a local mortgage company. Schut, who said he usually votes, may not bother this time.
That is bad news for his congressman, Representative Chris Chocola, who says the biggest risk to his re-election is that Republicans won't turn out to vote. He and fellow Republican incumbents John Hostettler and Mike Sodrel are all locked in razor-thin races whose outcomes, Chocola said, may determine whether Republicans hold their House majority.
"If all of us lose, I think we'll have lost the House,'' Chocola, 44, said in an interview.
That appears increasingly possible, according to the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. The Washington newsletter rates all three Indiana races as "toss-ups'' with a slight Democratic advantage, and predicts Democrats will gain 15 to 20 House seats in the Nov. 7 elections. A gain of 15 would give them control of the 435-member House.
Most of the other strong opportunities for Democrats this fall are in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York -- all of which backed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 -- and Ohio, which narrowly backed Bush.
A Republican Tradition
With the exception of 1964, Indiana has backed the Republican candidate in every presidential race since 1936, and Republicans now hold seven of the state's nine House seats.
That could change this year, said Del Ali, president of Research 2000, an Olney, Maryland-based polling company that has conducted surveys in Indiana.
"I think these elections are going to be nationalized,'' Ali said. "You could have a situation where voters say, 'Throw them all out.'''
A poll of 400 likely voters Ali conducted July 21-23 found Chocola had support of just 41 percent of likely voters, while 46 percent said they would support his Democratic opponent, business owner and lawyer Joe Donnelly.
Sensing opportunity, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is now targeting all three Indiana races for extra television ads and other help before Election Day.
In southeastern Indiana, Sodrel, 60, a trucking-company owner, is battling former Representative Baron Hill, 53, the Democrat he unseated in 2004 by just 1,425 votes. Seeking to exploit Sodrel's support for Bush on issues such as overhauling energy policy, the DCCC produced a TV ad in which an actor impersonating Bush leaves a voice-mail message for Sodrel thanking him for supporting tax breaks for oil companies and allowing energy companies to gouge Indiana drivers.
In southwest Indiana, Hostettler, 45, is facing the toughest campaign of his six terms in office, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
In the past, Hostettler's opposition to abortion and federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research has allowed him to rely on church-drawn volunteers to win re-election. Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight, a nonpartisan newsletter based in Noblesville, said it isn't clear this time whether he can count on the same level of support from evangelical Christians.
Not a `Wacko'
Hostettler's opponent, Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth, stresses his own conservative views on social issues. ``He's a Democrat who can legally carry a gun in the district,'' Feigenbaum said. ``He's not a liberal wacko who can be painted as Hostettler's polar opposite.''
Ellsworth, 47, had raised $1 million in campaign funds through June 30, with $676,000 cash on hand remaining. Hostettler raised just $287,000, with $195,000 cash on hand.
Much of the dissatisfaction Republicans are facing in Indiana stems from disenchantment with Bush. An Aug. 14 statewide poll of 600 Indiana adults by Survey USA found that just 45 percent of respondents approved of the job Bush is doing, while 52 percent disapproved.Adding to that are controversial decisions by Daniels, who was Bush's director of the Office of Management and Budget before being elected governor in 2004. They include a decision to lease the Indiana Toll Road, which runs through Chocola's northwest Indiana district, to an Australian-Spanish consortium for $3.9 billion. The proceeds from the deal are going to help build roads throughout the state, which angers many local toll-paying residents.
A Time-Zone Patchwork
Daniels also pushed through the state legislature a plan to put Indiana on daylight savings time, which created a patchwork of time zones in Chocola's district as each county selected its own.
Voters, the congressman said, are "mad at the governor, so the question is, will they take it out on me?''
Chocola said he hears more complaints from voters about job insecurity than he does about the Iraq war. His district has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in the last decade as companies such as Rockwell Automation Inc., Whirlpool Corp. and Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. cut back operations.
Donnelly uses every opportunity to remind Democratic voters that Chocola in his first term supported Bush 100 percent of the time in key votes tracked by Congressional Quarterly magazine, and 90 percent of the time in 2004. Donnelly cited the incumbent's support for Bush repeatedly last week as he made the rounds at a fish fry, a local club for veterans and a union hall.
"This is crunch time,'' Donnelly told members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in La Porte. "Right here in Indiana, this is Ground Zero.''
Chocola, for his part, says he is proud of his record, which includes support for low taxes and less regulation for manufacturers. He won't, he said in an interview, distance himself from Bush to ``save my political hide.''
To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Litvan in South Bend, Ind., at email@example.com
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