Hostettler Again Runs an Unorthodox Race

Posted April 2, 2010 at 5:31pm

Four years ago, then-Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) was defeated for re-election by nearly 50,000 votes and 22 points — the most lopsided defeat of an incumbent in the 2006 cycle and the kind of drubbing that might have convinced any other departing Member to exit politics for good.

But Hostettler is a quirky maverick who has never followed the traditional rules of political engagement. This year, he’s trying to restart his political career by waging a long-shot bid for the seat of retiring Sen. Evan Bayh (D), hoping to ride a wave of anti-Washington sentiment not unlike 1994, when Hostettler and dozens of other unlikely Republican victors were swept into office.

It’s a tall order. Political analysts and Republican officials consider Hostettler an underdog in the primary against former Sen. Dan Coats on May 4, mainly because of Coats’ big advantages in name identification, fundraising and endorsements and Hostettler’s lack of a full-fledged and statewide political network.

Yet Hostettler’s history shows that he is not to be underestimated, particularly in an anti-establishment political environment in which an unconventional candidate could thrive, and in a primary likely to draw a low turnout.

Hostettler’s viability is difficult to handicap for several reasons. Analysts noted that with just over four weeks remaining until the primary, none of the Senate candidates is on the air, no public polling of the GOP primary is available, and Coats hasn’t closed the deal with GOP voters a dozen years after he retired from the Senate. These sources believe it’s unlikely — but not unthinkable — that Hostettler could pull off an upset under the right circumstances.

The big question for Hostettler, whose campaign didn’t respond to an interview request, is whether he can replicate on a statewide basis his past success in the culturally conservative 8th district, where he narrowly won six elections on meager campaign budgets and a small paid staff. In those campaigns, a loyal following of conservative Christian backers, including abortion opponents, gun rights activists and home-schooling advocates, often seemed to pull him from the brink of defeat.

“He’s going to do very well in this part of the state,” said Nicholas Hermann, the chairman of the Vanderburgh County Republican organization in Evansville, the largest city in Indiana’s 8th. “But how that turns out statewide, I don’t know. You have people with different loyalties.”

“He has a committed core following, but in terms of, ‘Is there a campaign apparatus?’ There doesn’t appear to be,” said a veteran Indiana GOP operative.

Hostettler still has residual name recognition in southern Indiana from his dozen years in the House. He’s not as well-known in central Indiana, which includes a cache of Republican voters in and around Indianapolis, and is largely unknown in northern Indiana, which was Coats’ political base. The third major GOP candidate, state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, also is from northern Indiana.

Hostettler “probably has the second-most name ID after Coats, and he certainly has a passionate group of people,” the operative said. “But I can’t imagine he has a dime in the bank because he never raised money before. So unless he’s found a magic way to raise money — and I haven’t heard that he has — then I think he has a real problem getting known in the northern part of the state, which I suspect Coats is strongest in. There’s not a groundswell of support for John anywhere that I’ve seen.”

Indiana Republican officials and analysts who have observed Hostettler on the stump say that he is campaigning vigorously, with a fire in the belly that reminds them of his campaigns of the 1990s, when Hostettler also ran as an opponent of a Democratic president and a Democratic-run Congress. Hostettler is drawing some big crowds at Lincoln Day dinners and other events in his southwestern Indiana political base.

“Hostettler’s been very energetic. He’s had a lot of town hall meetings and is certainly courting the tea party movement, although I’m not really sure how that really translates into electoral success,” said Brian Howey, an Indiana political analyst and the publisher of Howey Politics Indiana.

But party officials also remember that Hostettler became disillusioned with George W. Bush’s administration and the Republican-run Congress and posted a sometimes contrarian voting record that included opposition to the Iraq War, a Medicare prescription drug law and federal aid for Hurricane Katrina victims.

Hostettler’s disenchantment showed in his 2006 race. He ran an uninspired campaign against Democratic challenger Brad Ellsworth, who could face Hostettler in a rematch now that he is the Democrats’ presumptive nominee for the Senate.

Hostettler’s lackluster effort against Ellsworth still irks some Indiana Republicans today. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which constantly had to come to Hostettler’s rescue because he eschewed systematic fundraising, spent nearly $2 million on the 2006 race — funds that it could have used to assist other Republican candidates. If Hostettler wins the Republican nomination, the National Republican Senatorial Committee probably will have to come to his aid in the general election.

“Ellsworth beat him like a drum. He didn’t even try. For a lot of Republicans, that’s hard to forget,” the GOP operative said.

Howey said, “There’s a lot in trepidation in the party hierarchy about a Hostettler Senate candidacy. … He wasn’t afraid to split with the Republicans and President Bush on a lot of key issues. Add in the fact that he’s an untraditional maverick, and I’m sure there are some people staying awake at night concerned about that possibility.”

Hostettler is running his Senate campaign differently in at least one respect: He is now accepting money from political action committees after years of shunning such contributions. But that shift may not boost his bottom line all that much. PACs often sit out contested primary elections, and Coats is the favorite of party establishment figures.

Hostettler must reveal by April 15 how much money he raised in this year’s first quarter. That document will go a long way toward determining his political viability in a statewide race.

“If he’s got the money and shows he’s willing to run more of a traditional campaign, I suppose, and give that stuff credence, he has a shot at winning in the primary,” an Indiana Republican official said. “But I don’t know that he’s going to be able to run statewide like he did in the 8th.”