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Ellsworth’s Seat Looks to Be a Difficult Hold

Indiana has no shortage of spectacular politics in 2010. The Hoosier State features three competitive House races, a Senate race that is lighting up the airwaves and a governor who is being treated nationally as a potential presidential candidate.

The House races are particularly interesting. The Indiana delegation is made up of five Democrats and four Republicans, but that is likely to change in a few months. Democratic Reps. Baron Hill and Joe Donnelly face top-tier races against tough Republican challengers, but the GOP’s best pickup opportunity is the seat Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth is leaving behind to run for Senate.

Democratic state Rep. Trent Van Haaften is facing off against Republican nominee Larry Bucshon. Bucshon, a surgeon who runs Ohio Valley HeartCare, entered the race months before Ellsworth announced he would run for Senate, and he won an eight-way primary in May with just 30 percent of the vote. Bucshon won nine of the district’s 18 counties, including its population centers in Vanderburgh and Vigo counties.

But Democrats argue there is a path to victory in the very conservative district this fall.

Van Haaften campaign manager Zach Knowling pointed to the divided primary and to redistricting after 2000 as reasons Democrats can hold the “Bloody Eighth.”

“This district was redrawn to favor Democrats, and that’s when they added Terre Haute,” Knowling said. “Terre Haute is in a huge Democratic county and has strong labor roots.”

Bucshon disputed the idea that this is a district drawn to help a Democrat win.

“This district is a conservative district, and I would say this: My previous Congressman, Congressman Ellsworth, campaigned as a conservative, but he’s a left-wing liberal,” he said in a phone interview, adding that he doesn’t expect Ellsworth to carry his home district in his Senate race.

Ellsworth has been a friend to Van Haaften, though. He helped him get the endorsement of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition in early August, and the two men talk on a weekly basis. They first interacted when Van Haaften was prosecutor in Posey County and Ellsworth was sheriff in Vanderburgh County.

Bucshon said he plans to tie Van Haaften not to Ellsworth but to his legislative record over six years in the state House.

“It’s a pretty sharp contrast,” he said. “I’m for small government, low taxes, less government intervention in our everyday lives. Trent is the opposite. He’s for big government, higher taxes, government involvement in pretty much everything.”

Both candidates have said they would have opposed the health care bill, unlike Ellsworth, but Van Haaften has said he doesn’t think repealing the bill is politically feasible. Van Haaften, who got the support of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, has accused Bucshon of supporting a plan to privatize Social Security during the primary, which Bucshon denies.

Both campaigns are collecting endorsements: Most recently Bucshon nabbed the support of the National Right to Life Committee. He already had an endorsement from Indiana Right to Life. He also got the support of the Campaign for Working Families and has had a number of Republican leaders campaign with him in the district, including House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. In addition to the Blue Dogs’ endorsement, Van Haaften recently added the Fraternal Order of Police of Indiana and got the support of the AFL-CIO.

The most recent fundraising numbers through the end of June tell an incomplete story, following Van Haaften’s unopposed primary and Bucshon’s close fight. Nonetheless, at that point the Republican had raised $493,000 total, including more than $65,000 from himself, and had $207,000 on hand. The Democrat had raised $473,000 and still had $360,000 on hand.

But by Nov. 2, this race may have nothing to do with money or issues and everything to do with the mood of the nation, theorized Ed Feigenbaum, editor of the political newsletter Indiana Legislative Insight. Campaign committees from both parties have reserved airtime in the district.

“I just have a real sense of foreboding about that race, that this is not going to be about Van Haaften or Bucshon and that the national folks are really going to fill a vacuum here,” he said.

The district has a history of falling to a wave. Ellsworth defeated six-term GOP Rep. John Hostettler with 61 percent of the vote in 2006, a year that favored Democrats. Hostettler was first elected in the Republican wave of 1994 and was a perennial target until he lost in 2006. His predecessor was Rep. Frank McCloskey, a Democrat who was first elected in the 1982 landslide that occurred in President Ronald Reagan’s first midterm elections. McCloskey’s 1984 re-election race was so close that the House ran its own investigation and ultimately voted to seat him. He fought for every win in the 1980s, and redistricting after the 1990 census only helped him hang on to his seat for one more cycle — until Republicans won control of the House in 1994.

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