Indiana House Republicans are focusing their attention on supporting vulnerable incumbents throughout the state this election year in their effort to protect the powerful supermajority they won two years ago.
Republicans enjoy a clear fundraising advantage over Democrats and benefit from favorable districts they drew in 2011. But Democrats and teachers unions have targeted a handful of races in areas including northwestern Indiana and along the Ohio River.
"We are well positioned and have the ability to break the supermajority," said Peter Hanscom, campaign director for the Indiana House Democrats.
All 100 House seats are on the ballot next week. Republicans currently hold a 69-31 edge, controlling two more seats than the 67 needed to give them a supermajority. So Democrats must add at least three seats to break that hold.
The Republican supermajority effectively prevents walkouts such as the five weeks in 2011 when Indiana Democrats left the state to block education and labor bills.
Hanscom said Democrats are hopeful they can pick up three seats in northwest Indiana, by unseating state Rep. Ed Soliday of Valparaiso and Rep. Harold Slager of Schererville, and winning the seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Rick Niemeyer of Lowell. They also see opportunity in Terre Haute, where one incumbent Republican, Rep. Alan Morrison, only narrowly won the seat last time.
But Republicans say they have strong challengers taking on Rep. Shelly VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point; Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Hammond; and Rep. Bionca Gambill, D-Terre Haute.
"It's always tougher when you're defending the lead," said Indiana Republican Party Chairman Tim Berry.
Grass-roots efforts and get-out-the-vote strategies are likely to play a bigger role this year, as turnout is expected to be low. Berry noted this was the first cycle since 2002 without a president, governor or U.S. Senate seat at the top of the ticket to drive voter interest. Even in 2002, a series of tough Congressional battles helped drive more voter interest than may be seen this year.
"Without a high-profile race at the top of the ticket, you typically see much lower turnout," Berry said.
The state's continuing education wars have been an undercurrent through many of the legislative races. Supporters of the conservative education changes pushed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former schools Superintendent Tony Bennett have given heavily to vulnerable incumbents.
Meanwhile, the PAC for the state's largest teachers union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, has donated close to $1 million over the six-month period that ran through the start of October. They have donated heavily in a handful of targeted races — including $30,000 each for northwest Indiana Democrat Deb Porter, who's fighting Soliday, and Democratic candidate Mark Spelbring, who is challenging Rep. Matt Ubelhor, R-Bloomfield.