Control of House key issue as election season revs up

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The Nov. 2 election in Indiana may play out as part of a national, anti-incumbent tidal wave that gives control of Congress and many state legislatures to conservative Republicans.

Or not.

The election may be only eight weeks away, but a lot of things can change in that time, traditionally the most intense political season. Campaigns are revving up for the final, post-Labor Day lap, when candidates’ spending and rhetoric are heightened and voters’ minds are made up.

One hundred Indiana House seats are on the ballot—though many fewer are competitive—but their outcomes may affect the state well beyond the two-year terms the candidates seek. If Republicans wrest the majority from Democrats, who now hold a 52-48 margin, and if they retain all constitutional offices, the GOP will have a lock on the executive and legislative branches of state government.

Perhaps more significant, their unilateral control comes just in time for the decennial drawing of new congressional and state legislative districts, all but ensuring Republican dominance well into the next decade.

Republican state Chairman Murray Clark said the party recruited challengers in 24 legislative districts he considers competitive. All are acolytes of Gov. Mitch Daniels and many have no previous political experience, “which we think is a badge of honor in this political environment,” Clark said.

Democrats tell voters that one-party rule is dangerous. In the two years when Republicans had the majority in both legislative chambers, Daniels “just about did anything he wanted,” said House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend. When Democrats controlled the House, they helped Daniels pass at least one good program, the Healthy Indiana health-care initiative, and kept him from passing bad ones, he said. 

Democrats also are questioning the ability of Daniels’ administration to create jobs and the veracity of its job-number claims, as well as Republicans’ commitment to education.

Voters aren’t worried about one-party control, said Rep. Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, who would be speaker if Republicans win control. “Voters in this election are going to vote, first, for whom they believe can balance the state budget in a responsible fashion; two, who is willing to take action and create jobs in this state; and three, who is willing to do everything possible to help kids,” he said.

Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of Indiana Legislative Insight, a political newsletter, called Democrats’ chance of holding onto the House majority “very dismal” because of the many issues challenging the party, including the mood of the electorate and the $1.5 million held by Daniels’ Aiming Higher political action committee.

Still, “Bauer has always managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat before other people have even seen a hat,” Feigenbaum said. “He has always been very good at uniting his caucus behind some type of message and he certainly understands what he’s up against this time. I don’t believe he’ll be at a loss for coming up with some kind of strategy.”

Also on the ballot is the race for the U.S. Senate. So far, it has not panned out to be the epic battle some expected after Democrat Evan Bayh announced in February that he would not seek a third term.

“I’m not seeing a Senate race right now,” Feigenbaum said. “It seems to be that people on both sides of the aisle have very little enthusiasm for their respective standard bearers.”

U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a former Vanderburgh County sheriff, is the Democratic candidate. Former Sen. Dan Coats, who demurred from seeking reelection when Bayh first ran in 1998, was recruited by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to run this year. Coats, a lobbyist who also served as U.S. ambassador to Germany, defeated four challengers in the May primary. Rebecca Sink Burris is the Libertarian candidate.

“You haven’t seen as much of Dan Coats because, frankly, he hasn’t needed to get out there,” Clark said. Ellsworth, he said, has spent a lot of money on television advertising “to move backward;” recent polls have shown his approval ratings are down and he trails Coats in a head-to-head race.

The FiveThirtyEight blog , which forecasts election results nationally, said last week that “Indiana, where Evan Bayh is retiring, is also more than 95 percent likely to flip to Republicans.”

The Ellsworth campaign contends that the race will tighten as Hoosiers become more familiar with the Democratic candidate. “Our own internal polls show that when voters know the choice is between a former sheriff who spent 25 years protecting Hoosiers and a lobbyist who has spent the past decade working for special interests, this race is in a dead heat,” said Elizabeth Farrar, Ellsworth’s communication director.

Meanwhile, the three congressional races in central Indiana provide little suspense; Feigenbaum termed them “a lock.” U.S. Rep. André Carson, D-Indianapolis, is expected to win re-election easily against perennial Republican candidate Marvin Scott, a Butler University sociology professor, and Libertarian Dav Wilson in the 7th congressional district, which includes Indianapolis.

Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who was among 13 Republicans in the May primary, is expected to defeat Democrat David Sanders, a Purdue University biology professor who twice challenged Rep. Steve Buyer in the 4th district. Buyer is retiring after nine terms.  John Duncan is the Libertarian candidate.

And Rep. Dan Burton, who survived a seven-way Republican primary with a 30-percent plurality – just two percentage points ahead of his nearest challenger – is expected to easily defeat conservative Democrat Tim Crawford, who identifies himself as “an ex-republican” on his website, and Libertarian Chard Reid.

Brian Vargus, a political science professor at IUPUI, said that only one Indiana congressional district—the 8th, in southwestern Indiana—may switch the party of its representative. With Ellsworth’s move to the Senate race, the seat is open. Vargus predicted that Republicans will make inroads in other states’ congressional delegations but in insufficient numbers for the GOP to take control of the U.S. House.

Other races are on the ballot include secretary of state, state treasurer and state auditor; county clerk, prosecutor, recorder, sheriff and assessor; and, in half of the 100 districts, state Senate seats. Voters also will be asked if they wish to amend the state Constitution to cap property taxes.

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