Washington may be Hoosier politicians' most lucrative punching bag.
A right jab from Republican Mike Pence on efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions fires up his Republican base in Indiana and secures donations of $2,500 per person in Washington. Democrat John Gregg throws a left jab with allegations of tea party extremism and Washington-style partisan gridlock, then energizes Democrats and woos open checkbooks with a Capitol Hill fundraiser with former Sen. Evan Bayh.
Democrats and Republicans running at the top of their ticket have perfected the art of bashing Washington, and all the evils perceived in that name, while raising thousands of dollars there. That starts with a massively dismal view of the nation's capital and national politics, particularly of Congress.
"There is plenty for everyone to hate about Washington. You have a bad economy, a record deficit and Washington plays a big part in that," said Christine Matthews, a veteran Indiana Republican pollster.
For Gregg, the strategy means tying Pence as much as possible to a Congress that has a 16 percent approval rating. For Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, it means continuing the anti-Washington rhetoric that carried him past U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in the May primary, Matthews said.
When Pence rolled out his first detailed policy proposal last week, calling for a series of regional study groups that would recommend changes to Indiana's vocational education structure, Gregg's immediate shot back was that the six-term congressman was leaning on "Washington-style" committees when action was needed.
"Everybody knows Congress is broken, and sometimes I can get people to realize that Mike Pence is in Congress and that he's part of the problem and he's never been part of the solution," Gregg said. But when asked if the same critique applies to U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democratic Senate nominee, Gregg pivots and says that critique doesn't apply in his case because Donnelly has set his sights on Washington, not the Statehouse.
The Indiana Republican Party's state convention was a reminder that hits on Washington still fire up the crowd best. Pence got his loudest applause not when he talked about increasing economic growth or improving state schools, but when he blasted the federal health care overhaul and efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions dubbed a "national energy tax."
Each one of those hits fires up their base. It also fires up their fundraisers, which are occasionally held in that "den of vipers," as Gregg calls it. Pence and Gregg have both leaned on Washington to pump up their fundraising through their battles. Tickets have ranged from $500 to $2,500 depending on the venue and the guests, according to invitations collected by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group.
Earlier this month, the Mourdock campaign blasted Donnelly for attending a Washington fundraiser with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. That same week, though, Mourdock attended four fundraisers during a three-day blitz of the city coordinated by a Washington-based fundraising firm working for Senate Republicans.
Mourdock campaign manager Jim Holden said their point was not to criticize Donnelly for fundraising in Washington, but to hit him on working with Reid.
"Our point about the Harry Reid fundraiser was simply that Donnelly has embraced the Democratic leadership in the Senate whose agenda is unpopular with the majority of Hoosier voters," Holden said.
Using one hand to bash the inside-the-beltway culture, while reaching out for donations with the other, is all part of the game, Matthews said.
"They kind of fly below the radar, that's just how it's done," she said.