Skip to content

Burton Facing Potentially Tough GOP Primary Challenge

The Hoosier State, reliably Republican in presidential elections and lacking competitive Senate races for years, was a hub of House race activity last year and both parties promise to make it so again in 2008. [IMGCAP(1)]

Democrats picked up three seats in Indiana on their way to winning control of the House in November, and the National Republican Congressional Committee would like nothing more than to avenge all of those losses.

“Heading into a presidential election year, we are naturally looking to a deep red state like Indiana where we have three or maybe even four potential pickup opportunities,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said.

Despite the GOP’s focus on Indiana, no recruit has committed to trying to topple Democratic freshman Reps. Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill.

Hill is a “redshirt” freshman who represented the 9th district for six years before losing to Mike Sodrel in 2004. Hill bested Sodrel last year to reclaim his seat.

Several names are being bandied about in the 2nd district, though former GOP Rep. Chris Chocola’s is not among them. Donnelly beat Chocola, who was first elected in 2002, last year, after losing to him in 2004.

By all accounts, Donnelly is looking good — the 2nd district is the least Republican of the three districts that Democrats secured in 2006 — though

Republicans clearly intend to make him sweat next year.

Goshen real estate developer Luke Puckett (R) is said to be seriously weighing a bid against Donnelly. State Sens. Tom Weatherwax and Joe Zakas, along with former state Rep. Jackie Walorski and Kokomo Deputy Mayor Phil Williams, also could be in the GOP mix.

Local Republican officials reportedly are waiting on Weatherwax before backing a candidate.

Wary of the criticism former NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) endured in the previous cycle for publicly choosing sides in some primaries, current Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has pledged to keep out of primary contests. That could affect the party’s ability to effectively challenge the freshman Democrats if local officials cannot clear the path for just one candidate.

Ellsworth, a former sheriff, has gotten high marks on his Congressional start. If Republicans cannot get a top-tier candidate to run against him, the district could be in danger of losing its nickname — “the bloody 8th,” which it earned for its record of brutal contests.

“Ellsworth looks to be in good shape, especially given the national environment,” said Brian Howey of the Howey Political Report, a newsletter that focuses on Indiana politics. “Republicans need a strong candidate who can raise money on his own and not have to rely on the NRCC” to pull him across the finish line.

The Republican name most often mentioned is Greg Goode, who works in the government affairs office of Indiana State University. The 34-year-old college official previously worked on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to then-Rep. Brian Kerns (R-Ind.) and as a legislative aide to Kerns’ predecessor, former Rep. Ed Pease (R).

Howey said Goode is the kind of candidate who can mount a serious campaign on his own.

Putnam County Sheriff Mark Frisbee (R) also is said to be looking at the race. An Ellsworth-Frisbee matchup would be a case of the dueling sheriffs that could neutralize Ellsworth’s law-and-order appeal.

Republicans who know Indiana politics say if Frisbee passes this time, he is someone to watch in future cycles.

The 9th district could be set to make history if Sodrel decides to run. If he does, all other would-be Republican challengers are standing down until he makes his decision. It would be the fourth Hill-Sodrel contest in a row.

Some observers believe Sodrel is attempting to read the presidential tea leaves before making his final decision. Indiana has sided with every Republican presidential nominee since 1968, but if the Democratic nominee chooses home-state golden boy, Sen. Evan Bayh (D), as his or her running mate, that could seriously change the calculations for Republican candidates in 2008, Howey said.

“The overall national environment [as it now stands] would be a plus for the Democrats,” Howey said. “If Sen. Hillary [Rodham] Clinton [D-N.Y.] is the nominee … that is something many Indiana Democrats fear. Yet, it’s a double-edged sword because she’s the most likely to choose Bayh as her vice presidential candidate.”

As for Hill’s fate, it all hinges on Sodrel, Howey said.

“We’re looking at all three of these [House] races to be in play,” he noted. “The biggest question right now is if Sodrel will run. If he doesn’t, Baron Hill, for all practical purposes, easily holds on to that seat.”

Local attorney Todd Young is reportedly eyeing the race but only would run if Sodrel declines, one GOP official said.

But a Democratic operative said the Republicans will be hard-pressed to win the three seats back.

“In 2006, Hoosiers of all political stripes rejected politics as usual and sent a wake-up call to out of touch Washington insiders,” said Ryan Rudominer, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman. “Since then, Congressman Hill, Congressman Ellsworth, and Congressman Donnelly have helped change the way Washington does business by providing an independent voice for the people they represent.

“Given their strong record of fighting for Hoosier values and the unpopularity of President Bush and Gov. [Mitch] Daniels [R] — who faces a tough re-election — 2008 looks even worse for the GOP across the board,” Rudominer added.

Whether other House districts are competitive in Indiana — this cycle or for the foreseeable future — remains to be seen.

In the 1st, veteran Rep. Peter Visclosky (D) is firmly entrenched. First elected in 1984, he usually breezes to re-election, finishing below 60 percent just once, in the GOP wave election of 1994. The only Republican willing to take him on so far is Mark Leyva, a local anti-tax activist.

No Democrat has stepped forward to challenge Rep. Mark Souder (R) in the 3rd but national Democrats think the member of the historic Republican class of 1994 could be toppled.

In a wave election, Souder could be in trouble and seems to know it, Howey said. Even without a Democrat in the race, Souder already is running hard and raising early money as never before, Howey observed.

Tom Hayhurst, the Fort Wayne city councilman who held Souder to a surprisingly low 54 percent of the vote last year, has decided not to try again. He sunk $200,000 of his own money into last year’s contest and would have been Souder’s toughest opponent next year, Howey said.

Rep. Steve Buyer (R) looks solid in the 4th district so far. Nels Ackerson, a local attorney, has formed an exploratory committee and would be a new face for the Democrats in that district. The other two Democrats weighing bids are retreads David Sanders, whom Buyer beat in 2006 and 2004, and Rick Cornstuble, whom Sanders beat for the Democratic nomination last year.

Rep. Mike Pence (R) might again face Methodist minister Barry Welsh (D) in the 6th next year. Pence has never faced serious competition since he was first elected in 2000 after two unsuccessful tries for the seat.

The two other races that could prove interesting are in the 5th and 7th districts, Howey said.

Veteran Rep. Dan Burton (R) drew former Marion County Coroner John McGoff into the Republican primary by missing early key votes to attend a celebrity golf tournament, a move that made the Congressman, now in his 12th term, look arrogant.

“Indiana voters are more than willing to make a change,” Howey said. Hoosiers proved it in 2004 by tossing aside then-Gov. Joe Kernan (D), who assumed the governorship when Gov. Frank O’Bannon (D) died in office. They also dismissed state Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton and state Sen. Larry Borst, two veteran lawmakers, during recent Republican primaries.

If a “throw the bums out” mentality takes hold, which is a real possibility, Howey says, Members such as Burton could be in serious trouble.

State Sen. Jeff Drozda is also said to be thinking of jumping into the GOP primary. No Democratic names have been floated in the 5th but the primary promises to be worth watching.

Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson (D) lives in the 5th, but he is seen as far more likely to run for governor or the Senate whenever there’s a vacancy than running for governor.

Indiana Democrats are also high on Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott and Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel. Both are seen as having bright political futures, though both represent districts with Democratic House Members (Visclosky and Ellsworth, respectively).

Speculation that Rep. Julia Carson (D) might relinquish her hold on the Indianapolis-based 7th district seat she has held since 1997 runs rampant. She has not disclosed her re-election plans yet and has been in poor health recently.

Republican unknown Eric Dickerson held Carson to 54 percent of the vote last year in the heavily Democratic district while elsewhere in the state Democrats were unseating Republicans on their own turf. National Democrats privately worry that if Carson seeks a seventh term, she could put the otherwise safe seat into play.

If Carson were to retire, a long line of Democrats would form to replace her.

The most frequently mentioned are Andre Carson, her grandson; state Reps. Gregory Porter and Carolene Mays; Center Township Trustee Carl Drummer; and former Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Robin Winston. Ultimately, such a primary could see 10 or even 12 competitors.