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A Look at Indiana

While Indiana has not lacked for competitive races in the past, the Hoosier State will be a hotbed of political activity in 2004.

Indiana is one of just 11 states holding a gubernatorial election next year. Current Gov. Frank O’Bannon (D) has served two terms and cannot run for re-election. While it’s hard to imagine any scenario where President Bush does not win the state, the race to succeed O’Bannon will be more competitive.

Meanwhile, Sen. Evan Bayh (D) is up for re-election and while there is consensus that he will have little trouble winning a second

term, things could get intriguing if his name were to appear on the ballot twice in 2004.

Bayh took himself out of the presidential running early, but it is widely speculated that he could end up on the short list of Democratic vice presidential running mates. Under Indiana law, Bayh is allowed to seek both offices.

Bayh’s hypothetical presence on the ticket could boost the Democrats, who have not won Indiana in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. It could also backfire if Republicans make running for both offices an issue in the Senate campaign.

Luke Messer, executive director of the Indiana Republican Party, noted that if Bayh were to be tapped for veep he would have to become the requisite attack dog on Bush, something that might not go over well with Indiana voters.

“We might find ourselves with even a better opportunity than we see ourselves with today,” he said, referring to Bayh’s re-election chances.

Indiana Republicans proudly printed buttons after the 2000 presidential election that read “Bush/Cheney 6:01p.m.,” a reference to the time on Election Night that the state was called for the ticket.

“Who knows, maybe if Evan were on the ticket, it would be 6:15,” Messer mused.

But at this point Republicans acknowledge they do not have a top-tier candidate to challenge Bayh, the son of former Sen. Birch Bayh, (D) who served as governor for eight years and remains popular. Perennial Congressional contender Marvin Scott (R), a professor at Butler University, is the only candidate who has announced his intention to run so far.

By the same token, it’s hard to see Democrats fielding a strong challenger to Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) in 2006. Lugar, who is now chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, won re-election the past two times with 67 percent of the vote.

While the Hoosier State Senate seats are not likely to see much competition until they are vacated, Indiana is home to a handful of high-profile House districts.

The 2nd district was one of the key battlegrounds in the 2002 election. The open-seat contest between Democrat Jill Long-Thompson, a former Congresswoman, and Republican businessman Chris Chocola gained national prominence, as both parties poured resources into the race. Chocola eventually won the seat of former Rep. Tim Roemer (D), 50 percent to 46 percent.

The seat will likely be competitive again this cycle, although few names of potential challengers to Chocola are being floated.

“The two districts I see as being really hot in Indiana are going to be two and eight,” said Democratic Party Executive Director Tim Henderson.

Messer, however, said that Chocola is well-positioned to lock down the swing seat for Republicans and “be a 10- to 20-year Congressman if he wants to be.”

Meanwhile, in the “bloody 8th,” Democrats see renewed opportunity to defeat Rep. John Hostettler (R) after he won with only 51 percent in 2002. Last year he faced a barrage of bad press over a meeting with breast cancer survivors and an underfunded challenger in Bryan Hartke.

“If we could have gotten people brought in in June, we would have won that race,” Henderson said, referring to the national party’s reluctance to target the district.

The party’s state central committee is currently looking at several candidates who could run next year and expects to “get behind a candidate early this time,” Henderson said. Hartke, who received lukewarm support from the national party, may run again.

A high-profile competitive race would be assured if former state House Speaker John Gregg (D) were to challenge Hostettler. Some believe that the seat was redrawn in 2001 with Gregg in mind, but he retired from the state House last year instead. One of the reasons he cited for stepping down was a desire to spend more time with his family, which leaves questions as to whether he would trade political retirement for a Congressional schedule.

In the future, state Rep. Jonathan Weinzapfel (D) would also be a strong contender in the district. He is currently running for mayor of Evansville, and would likely take some time before jumping into a Congressional or statewide race. He came close to beating Hostettler in 1996, taking 48 percent of the vote.

Like Democrats in the 8th, Republicans continue to target Rep. Julia Carson’s (D) Indianapolis-based 7th district and come up short.

“Republicans tend to discount her strength in the community,” Henderson said. “I just see them saving their money this time around.”

Brose McVey (R), whom Carson defeated by 9 points in 2002, is unlikely to run again.

But in the 9th district, Rep. Baron Hill (D) will likely face a rematch with his 2002 opponent, trucking company owner Mike Sodrel (R). Sodrel is meeting with local, state and national party leaders and the race will likely be heavily targeted next year.

“We have every reason to believe that the 9th district will be a top-10 challenger race,” Messer said.

Hill had been encouraged to run for governor next year, but he said last month that he would run for re-election. The Republican-leaning district will be hard for Democrats to hold once Hill is gone, but he has continued to win tough elections there since 1998.

Henderson said that last year’s vote tally was telling in that Hill won even with low margins in Clark and Floyd counties, the Democratic base in the district. Democrats see that as evidence that Hill will continue to win the marginal district.

Elsewhere, two potentially strong Democratic candidates for future statewide office are currently serving as mayors of the state’s largest cities.

Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and Fort Wayne Mayor Graham Richard are among the party’s rising stars.

Republicans also have several rising stars warming the bench.

In the 1st district, former state Rep. Dan Dumezich (R) is an attorney active in Lake County politics.

“Most folks believe that he’ll be running for something else again,” Messer noted.

After an upset win last November, newly elected Secretary of State Todd Rokita (R) has also emerged as a strong possible contender in the 1st district or statewide. Rep. Peter Visclosky (D) has represented the 1st since 1985, but Republicans believe that as the Chicago suburbs spread further into the district it could be more competitive down the road.

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