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Indiana parade draws Republicans vying for Banks’ open seat

May primary could decide race in heavily Republican district

Candidate Wendy Davis talks with a supporter before the Adams County fair parade on July 18 in Monroe, Ind.
Candidate Wendy Davis talks with a supporter before the Adams County fair parade on July 18 in Monroe, Ind. (Nathan L. Gonzales/CQ Roll Call)

MONROE, Ind. — The Republican primary is still 10 months away, and yet a handful of GOP candidates and campaigns showed up in small-town Indiana for a parade. The 3rd District seat is open because Republican Jim Banks is running for the Senate, and his potential replacements didn’t want to miss an opportunity to connect with voters.

Nestled in a sea of corn and soybeans just a few miles from the Ohio border, Monroe has a population of 945. But it felt like twice that many people showed up for one of the prize pieces of the Adams County 4-H Fair. Locals lined each side of the street with camping chairs and blankets hours in advance to secure prime spots for watching and gathering candy. 

All but one of the top campaigns were represented, as well as a couple of underdogs, all appropriately dressed in red, white and blue campaign shirts. Considering President Donald Trump won Adams County with 75 percent and the 3rd District overall with 64 percent in 2020, capturing the GOP nomination next May 7 is critical.

Davis generating buzz

Former Allen County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Davis, her husband and a team of red-shirted supporters led the string of candidates. Davis went to high school in Fort Wayne, the largest city in the 3rd, just about 45 minutes north.

As a former judge, military wife (her husband is a lieutenant colonel in the Indiana Air National Guard) and military mother (their son graduated from West Point), Davis has been generating some buzz inside and outside the district, particularly from Republicans focused on diversifying the party’s caucus by adding more women, minorities and veterans on Capitol Hill. 

Davis, 57, was the only non-incumbent in Winning for Women’s first round of endorsements, has been endorsed by VIEWPAC, received PAC money from Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri and former Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, and has been getting help from New York Rep. Elise Stefanik. Davis also has local support from county commissioners and from Roger and Naomi Muselman, two heavy hitters in Adams County who were part of her parade troupe.  

“As a judge, I can’t kick the can down the road. You have to make a ruling. D.C. is inactive and unresponsive,” said Davis in an interview in the staging area, contrasting her experience reacting to issues including fentanyl, drug dealers, immigration and gender identity issues from the bench with the reputation of Congress. “It’s time to pivot.”

In order to be a proactive legislator, Davis needs to win this primary first. She led the field of candidates with $329,000 in the bank on June 30, shares a national political consultant with Banks, and has won three elections in populous Allen County. But, after defeating an incumbent in 2010, her most recent elections were uncontested. She’ll need resources to raise her profile over the coming months, particularly when another well-funded candidate gets in the race soon. 

Candidate Jon Kenworthy passes out campaign literature at the Adams County 4-H fair parade on July 18 in Monroe, Ind.

Kenworthy touts ‘different perspective’

The Jon Kenworthy contingent was smaller, but the candidate knows he won’t have the most money or endorsements, he’s just looking for the most votes on primary day. 

“I believe strongly that we need people making decisions that have experience —  life experience — not just seeing things second hand through the lens of others,” said Kenworthy, who got his start in Washington as an unpaid intern for Indiana Sen. Dan Coats. He was quickly hired as a staff assistant and moved up to legislative correspondent before serving two tours in Iraq with the Army. His campaign logo emphasizes that he’s a “combat veteran.”

“I bring a different perspective as someone who has fought in war, struggled through the recession. And I have personal experience with immigration,” explained Kenworthy, whose wife emigrated from Germany and carried the banner in the parade. In March, Kenworthy left his paid job as a military legislative assistant to Sen. Mike Braun to focus on the campaign. 

Kenworthy is 38, but his full graying beard betrays his relative youth. He’s earnest but underfunded. The former staffer raised $10,000 through June 30 and had less than $2,000 in his campaign account. But he’s not oblivious. With a crowded field of serious candidates, and no runoff provision in Indiana, Kenworthy is hoping that his grassroots effort and dedication to parades like this one will allow him to win with a plurality.

A pickup full of flags promotes candidate Andy Zay before the Adams County 4-H Fair parade on July 18 in Monroe, Ind.

Zay sends surrogates

State Sen. Andy Zay was hundreds of miles away in Georgia, supporting his son’s travel baseball team at a national tournament. But his team was on hand, giving out candy and literature as his brother-in-law’s blue Ford truck led the effort with five American flags rising from the bed and a bald eagle and “We the People” preamble to the Constitution on the tailgate.

Zay, 57, represents Huntington County, the second-largest county in the House district, although it’s dwarfed by Allen County (389,000 to 37,000). He succeeded Banks in the state Senate and is running as a trusted voice with a record. 

“It’s about my experience. I have conservative credentials from the vantage point that I’ve voted on issues that are important to Republicans,” Zay said in a phone interview. He said his experience as a lawmaker and small business owner (the family car leasing and rental business in Huntington has been around for 70 years), “builds credibility for me to move forward into Congress.”

On June 30, Zay had $221,000 in the bank, including a $100,000 loan he made to the campaign. He’s also putting together a campaign team that includes well-known GOP firms.

Candidate Grant Bucher talks with parade goers at the Adams County Fair on July 18 in Monroe, Ind.

Bucher ‘quite average’

The final congressional crew was for Grant Bucher, the newest entry into the race, who had a small army of extended family and supporters in white T-shirts emblazoned with a modern campaign logo.

“I’ve been so far removed from politics that I don’t make a likely candidate. I want to give people another person to vote for. I tend to resonate with a lot of average Hoosiers,” Bucher explained. “I’m quite average myself.” The 33-year-old is married with two young boys and is a construction project manager overseeing a new judicial center in Steuben County, in the northeast corner of the district and the state. Although he’s never run for office before, Bucher looks like he could play a congressman in a Netflix series. 

Growing up in neighboring Wells County (between Huntington and Adams counties), Bucher has roots in the district. But the neophyte candidate has work to do to raise his profile. He and his family recently moved back to the area from Michigan, he doesn’t have a pre-existing constituency, and he won’t be able to self-fund a campaign.

Front-runner Stutzman absent

Then there was the conspicuous absence of the race’s presumed front-runner: former Rep. Marlin Stutzman. According to Republicans working in and watching the race, the Adams County parade was indicative of the campaign up to this point. While the rest of the candidates and campaigns move around the district, Stutzman rarely has a presence. Yet he still might win. 

Stutzman represented more than 90 percent of 3rd District when he served in Congress from late 2010 through 2016, and Republicans in northeast Indiana have seen Stutzman’s name on the ballot many times. 

In 2010, Stutzman was serving in the state Senate when he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost a competitive GOP primary to Coats. Just weeks later, GOP Rep. Mark Souder resigned his 3rd District seat, and local Republicans chose Stutzman to replace him on the ballot. Stutzman went on to win the simultaneous special and regular elections that November. He subsequently won two unremarkable elections in 2012 and 2014 before running for the U.S. Senate — again — and losing in a competitive GOP primary — to Todd Young in 2016. 

Stutzman’s wife, Christy, was elected to the state House in 2018 and reelected in 2020 in a district that sits just west of the 3rd District. After 2nd District Rep. Jackie Walorski was killed in a car crash on Aug. 3, 2022, Christy Stutzman submitted her name as a candidate. Local Republican officials instead chose Rudy Yakym III, who eventually won the seat. 

Along with having an initial name I.D. advantage, Marlin Stutzman is among the top candidates in fundraising. He had $244,000 in the bank on June 30, including a $100,000 personal loan and contributions from House Freedom Fund, Reps. Andy Harris of Maryland, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, as well as former Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin.

While Stutzman’s critics point to a congressional ethics investigation that was never resolved once Stutzman left office, he has a powerful ally in Pat Miller, the most popular conservative radio talk show host in the area. Stutzman and his wife are regular guests and able to reach a large enough swath of primary voters from that platform to overcome not showing up at a 4-H parade. 

“It seems like there’s a lot of people where this becomes their career. They need to be reelected,” remarked Bucher, the first-time candidate. “I don’t care to make a career out of this. It’s freeing when you don’t have to have something.”

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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