Key races will decide who controls Indiana House of Representatives

October 13, 2008

Nestled just south of downtown, Indiana House District 97 generally leans Democratic. But Republican candidates can find support there, too. When state Rep. Jon Elrod prevailed there two years ago it was by just eight votes.

"Had there been a car wreck, I might not have won " joked Elrod, who's seeking re-election Nov. 4. "It keeps you humble and working hard."

The 97th is the exception, not the rule, among Indiana's 100 House districts. Most are strongly Democratic or strongly Republican. That means control of the House of Representatives will come down to a handful of battleground districts--probably fewer than a dozen, political experts say.

The stakes are high. Republicans are expected to maintain their firm hold on the Indiana Senate, where they enjoy a 33-to-17 majority. But Democrats control the Indiana House by a slim 51-to-49 margin.

If they retain control and incumbent Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels wins re-election, House Democrats will be a major roadblock to his legislative agenda, much of which has strong support in the business community. If Republicans retake the House, his plans would have a clearer path.

House control also would be critical if Democrat Jill Long Thompson upsets Daniels. The majority party assigns committee leaders, who decide whether bills survive for votes on the House floor. A Democratic House would give Thompson a platform to push priorities. If Republicans were in the majority, she'd be forced to plea from the bully pulpit.

"It's going to be 52 seats or fewer, one way or the other. There's not going to be 56 seats in this for either party," said House Minority Leader Brian Bosma, RIndianapolis. "It's going to be close."

Uncontested races

This fall, more than a quarter of House candidates face no opposition. Fourteen Democrats and 12 Republicans are guaranteed a win.

Borderlines dictate the outcome for most of the remaining races. Neither party devotes much money or attention to campaigns in districts where the other holds the natural demographic edge. Focusing on battleground districts helps both parties maximize the bang for their campaign buck.

But what's good for the parties isn't necessarily great for the public, said University of Indianapolis political science professor Stephen Graham.

"The whole policy of the state turns on a handful of competitive districts, where people voting in those districts determine much more than who their representative will be," he said. "That's not the best representative democracy."

Bosma estimates the two parties will spend a combined $15 million on Indiana House campaigns this year, with the bulk concentrated on the closest contests. This year, the outcome is especially tough to predict because nobody knows how national politics, particularly the presidential election, will play out locally.

Michael Davis, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce's vice president for political affairs, points out that 473,553 new Indiana voters have registered since 2006. That's 10.7 percent of the state's total. Many were motivated by enthusiasm for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's Democratic presidential campaign. Election Day will show whether they're also interested in local elections.

The slumping economy has voters focused on pocketbook issues, which experts say could give Democrats a leg up. But Indiana traditionally leans Republican, especially in rural areas. Obama's urban support may not carry over there.

"Will those [new] voters continue down the ballot and vote for anybody other than Obama, Daniels and--here in Indy--Andre Carson?" asked Indiana Legislative Insight publisher Ed Feigenbaum. "Will they vote for county candidates? State legislative candidates? Other state offices? Nobody knows."

The number of House races truly in play is slightly smaller than in past elections, Davis said. He predicts economic issues will decide most of the key races.

Door-to-door efforts

Candidates are hoping grass-roots campaigning puts them over the top.

For example, to try to stave off Democrat Mary Ann Sullivan, a community activist, Elrod spent the summer knocking on doors and attending wine and cheese mixers. He's blanketing constituents with direct mail about three local issues he thinks resonate in his district: property taxes, abandoned homes and vocational education for high school students.

"It really is going door to door, meeting with the neighborhood groups and doing whatever you can when you hear people have problems," Elrod said.

Another hotly contested seat is District 86 on the north side of Indianapolis. It's open because incumbent Democrat David Orentlicher ran unsuccessfully for Congress last spring rather than seek reelection.

The vacuum didn't last long. Democrat Ed DeLaney, a local attorney married to longtime Democratic leader Ann DeLaney, is campaigning hard against Republican Adam Nelson, a teacher.

DeLaney said he's been knocking on doors seven days a week since March, and has the calloused knuckles to show it. He said voters in his area are concerned about property taxes, local government efficiency and mass transit.

Attempts to distract voters with divisive national wedge issues don't resonate locally in these tough economic times, DeLaney said. Residents of the 86th want to hear how he'll fix their potholes and broken sidewalks, he said. When Republicans asked him to take a stance on offshore drilling, Delaney's response was, "Where? Lake Michigan?"

"I have done everything I can do to win, and I've been helped by my party, and dramatically helped by Sen. Obama," Delaney said. "Do I feel like I've got it made? No. This is a tough district, and I'll keep going until the last day."

Whether Republicans or Democrats prevail in the Indiana House, their majority almost certainly will be perilous. That leaves little wiggle room for caucus defections.

Pat Kiely, longtime president of the powerful Indiana Manufacturers Association, said that inevitably will cause both parties to gravitate toward moderate agendas.

"You're not going to have a lot of latitude from a budgetary standpoint. We've got to resolve all the leftover property tax issues and absorption of local costs," Kiely said.

"You'll be able to pass a few things, but you'll have to pick and choose and be visionary. I don't think any party will want to show up and be obstructionist."

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