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Indiana district will test how far suburbs have moved for GOP

Democrats see opening with retirement of Rep. Susan W. Brooks

Indiana’s 5th District was once known for its conservative firebrand of a congressman — Republican Dan Burton, the House Oversight chairman who famously called Bill Clinton a “scumbag” and tried to reenact the death of Clinton aide Vince Foster by shooting a watermelon. 

But redistricting and seven years have made a world of difference.

Now, this district just north of Indianapolis is a test case for whether traditionally Republican suburban voters will reject the same aggressive partisanship espoused by Burton and now President Donald Trump. 

Democrat Christina Hale, a former state representative who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2016, faces state Sen. Victoria Spartz, a Republican businesswoman who helped found her county tea party group. Both are seeking to replace Burton’s successor, Republican Susan W. Brooks, who is retiring after four terms.

No longer a lock

Hale is running in the tradition of former Indiana Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh and Joe Donnelly. Moderate in tone, she’s emphasized bipartisanship on the campaign trail — a move designed to appeal to a Republican state that has nonetheless been known to back Democrats for Senate and governor.

By contrast, Spartz, a Ukrainian immigrant who warns of the dangers of socialism, is “strong, aggressive, bold — she’s a forthright conservative,” said Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville. “She’s been saying the kind of things you say to Republican voters to remind them of why they’re Republican.”

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But while that might work in a solidly conservative district, Indiana’s 5th is no longer a lock for Republicans. Hamilton County, home of the Indianapolis suburbs of Noblesville, Carmel and Fishers, has become more affluent and more educated over the last 10 years, a period when that demographic was turning away from Republicans nationally. It’s also exploded in population, growing 23 percent between 2010 and 2019, according to Census Bureau estimates.

Andrew Downs, a political science professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said a Spartz victory would depend on there being “large enough pockets of rural conservative members of the party,” compared to the increasingly college-educated, wealthier voters who have moved into the suburbs. 

“Between all of those factors and the fact that it’s an open seat, people believe it could possibly be a swing district or at least friendly for the right Democrat,” he said.

Trump carried the district by 12 points in 2016, but two years later, district voters narrowly backed Donnelly by less than 1 point, though he lost statewide

Hamilton County also elected Democrats to a handful of municipal seats in 2018, and ousted state Sen. Mike Delph, a longtime conservative hard-liner. Replacing him was an openly gay, moderate Democrat, a move that at one point would’ve been “jaw-dropping” for the socially conservative region, Dion said.

“You always expect Democrats to do well in Gary, South Bend, maybe Evansville or Indianapolis or Bloomington, but not in the 5th District,” he said. “That is a rock-ribbed Republican stronghold.”

Dion said the change is not just in demographics but in tone: Many in the same bloc of voters that sent Burton back to Congress repeatedly in the 1980s and 1990s now seem “to be repulsed by the coarseness of modern politics.”

But Brooks, by all accounts moderate in tone, still saw increasingly tighter margins of victory with every race, said Greg Schufeldt, a political science professor at Butler University. After winning by 34 points in 2014, for example, her 2018 victory margin was 14 points. Schufeldt argued that “an open seat is perhaps a perfect storm to make this race more competitive than it might be in a different type of year.” 

Outside attention

Both candidates are well-funded — Hale raised $1.7 million last quarter, while Spartz raised $1.08 million, including $200,000 of her own money. Outside spending is also heavy, with GOP-aligned groups dropping $3.2 million to attack Hale and Democratic groups spending $2.4 million going after Spartz. 

Indiana University political science professor Elizabeth Bennion called the contest “a pure toss-up,” one with the potential to help determine the balance of power in the House. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales also rates the race a Toss-up.

Both candidates have compelling back stories: Hale is a Latina single mother who dropped out of college when she became pregnant, later earning a degree from Purdue while raising her son and working a full-time job. Spartz, meanwhile, moved to the U.S. from Ukraine in 2000 after meeting her husband on a train in Europe and became a successful businesswoman. 

The race may be decided by suburban female voters who backed Trump in 2016 but now support Biden.

“One of the things happening nationally that you also see reflected here in the 5th District is that the women in this district are not quite as positive about the president,” Bennion said. “This is a race that seems to have strong coattails.”

She said the race may become more of a referendum on Trump than on the candidates themselves.

“The people in the district have a choice of whether or not they want to show their support for Donald Trump or whether they want to cast a protest vote of sorts,” she said, adding that the 5th reflects many suburban seats in “moving away from extremely conservative candidates.”

Trump, said Dion, “is still going to win the state. But his margin is going to be pretty thin in the 5th.”

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