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Hollingsworth Won‘t Face Primary — Accused of Buying 2016 Seat

Indiana freshman impresses in Washington and at home

Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., won a five-way primary in 2016 by spending lots of his own money. This year, he doesn’t even have a viable primary challenger. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., won a five-way primary in 2016 by spending lots of his own money. This year, he doesn’t even have a viable primary challenger. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Recent Tennessee transplant Trey Hollingsworth faced widespread attacks in 2016 from Republicans and Democrats, who accused him of trying to buy an Indiana congressional seat.

But he withstood those charges, winning a contested GOP primary and then the general election by double digits in the 9th District. He’s now the 12th wealthiest lawmaker in Washington, according to Roll Call’s “Wealth of Congress” analysis.

Two years later, running for re-election in what’s still a safe Republican seat, he doesn’t even face a primary. (His one GOP opponent who filed with the Federal Election Commission hasn’t raised or spent any money).  

Republicans in the state and in Washington are generally impressed that Hollingsworth embraced the role of a freshman, kept his head down and prioritized constituent services.

It’s a remarkable trajectory for a candidate who was little known in his new hometown of Jeffersonville just weeks before the 2016 primary. 

Watch: 5 Things to Watch in Tuesday’s Congressional Primaries

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How he got here

Hollingsworth moved to the district in the fall of 2015. GOP Rep. Todd Young was vacating the seat to run for Senate.

His fortune came from Hollingsworth Capital Partners, an industrial real estate business based in Clinton, Tennessee, started by his father. Hollingsworth also started an aluminum remanufacturing operation in Indiana.

He loaned his campaign more than $3 million for the 2016 campaign. (At least half of that was for the May primary.) A super PAC largely funded by Hollingsworth’s father, called Indiana Jobs Now, spent an additional $1.5 million backing him. That allowed Hollingsworth, and his allies, to blanket the airwaves.

It didn’t hurt that he was running as an outsider businessman at the same time as Donald Trump was seeking the GOP presidential nod.

But Hollingsworth didn’t have a record of voting in Republican primaries in Indiana or Tennessee. Without such a record in the Hoosier State, he needed a party official to sign off on his candidacy as a Republican.

Indiana’s 9th District GOP Chairman Jamey Noel made Hollingsworth sign off on a loyalty pledge — much like the pledge the Republican National Committee got Trump to sign — promising not to run as a third-party candidate should he not win the nomination in the primary.  

Voters in the district knew him from his TV ads, but didn’t seem to know him from around town. (“Who is this Trey guy?” was a frequent line Roll Call heard in Jeffersonville in May 2016.) 

Despite parachuting into the district, Hollingsworth won the five-way primary with 34 percent of the vote. The second place finisher, a state senator who outraised him, took 25 percent, while the attorney general won 22 percent.

Hollingsworth then easily defeated his Democratic opponent, a former Miss Indiana, by 14 points in November. 

How he stays

Hollingsworth is unfailingly personable. He insists upon being called “Trey,” not “congressman.”

But he’s just as likely to drop canned lines — “Ultimately, it’s about public service” — or frame a motivational cliché in his office — “There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.”

A 1999 Washington Post story that touched on a 15-year-old Hollingsworth’s internet startup said he slept three hours a night. During the 2016 campaign, he often touted how many doors he’d knocked on. Now, he says he makes 500 randomized constituent phone calls each week, which takes 11 to 12 hours. He uses a digitized dialer that pulls numbers off a spreadsheet. It’s become lore among Hoosier politicos, both members and consultants, who wonder how he does it.

According to Hollingsworth, it’s the best part of his job.

“I’ve really been shocked and surprised, pleasantly so, at how amazingly insightful people can be,” he said.

It turns out, he’s exceeded the expectations of people at home, too. 

“Surprisingly, I can’t say enough good things,” said Noel, the Clark County GOP chairman who didn’t endorse anyone in the 2016 primary. 

It was Noel’s job to make sure Hollingsworth was qualified to seek the GOP nomination. “I put him under a close microscope,” he said. 

“It’s easy to answer questions, but his vote history matches up to what he said he was going to do,” Noel added.

“It’s true, I don’t like the way that he came into this,” said GOP Rep. Todd Rokita, who backed state Sen. Erin Houchin in the 2016 primary. “But Trey in the position, definitely, is doing well; he’s willing to take the courageous votes in front of leadership.”

Hollingsworth, like Rokita, voted against the omnibus spending bill earlier this spring.

Fellow Hoosier Rep. Luke Messer praised his “work ethic” and “humility.” 

Having once been in a similar situation when he represented a state legislative district that did not include the town where he grew up, Messer said he’s offered Hollingsworth this advice: “Be yourself — don’t pretend to be anything you’re not. And work really hard so that people know you’re hustling for them.”

Representing a district Trump carried by 27 points in 2016, Hollingsworth sticks pretty closely to the president.

If he “sat around and thought about it,” Hollingsworth said, he could come up with policy specifics — not just tweets — on which he disagrees with Trump.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified Hollingsworth as a target. Lawyer Liz Watson has attracted some national attention and outraised the incumbent, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, during the first quarter of 2018. So far this cycle, Hollingsworth has only loaned his campaign $60,000. Indiana Jobs Now filed a termination report in October 2016, but Hollingsworth’s father remains a donor to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 9th District race Solid Republican, which means a primary should have been Hollingsworth’s biggest battle this year.

He’s pledged not to serve more than four terms.

That could mean he’ll be making a lot more phone calls.

“It’s not in any way a drag,” Hollingsworth said. “Because, you know, up here, you’re one of 535. But to them, you are their member.”

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