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Democrats eye two competitive House races in red state Indiana

October 20, 2018

Democrats hoping to retake the U.S. House on Election Day probably won't get much help from Indiana voters, who will decide who holds the state's nine congressional seats for the next two years.

Republicans hold seven of those seats, Democrats the two others — and political observers say the two parties will likely hold onto those seats, including the heavily Republican 6th District, where Greg Pence, the older brother of Vice President Mike Pence, is seeking to claim the seat his famous sibling once held.

The 6th District is one of two open House seats in Indiana this year, along with the 4th District. They're open because Republican U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita ran in the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. Both men were defeated in the May primary by multimillionaire auto-parts magnate Mike Braun, who's challenging Democrat U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly in Indiana's closely watched Senate race.

Both districts are heavily Republican and expected to remain in GOP hands, but political observers say there's a chance of upsets in two other House races if the midterm elections produce a Democratic "blue wave" and it reaches Indiana.

The 9th District, which extends from the Ohio River to the south Indianapolis suburbs, and northern Indiana's 2nd District are deemed the most competitive of Indiana's nine congressional races.

9th District

The 9th District, where U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth faces Bloomington attorney Liz Watson—a former Democratic congressional staffer—is considered the closest of Indiana's House races, said Greg Shufeldt, an assistant professor of political science at Butler University.

"It's the one to watch. If there is a blue wave and it comes to Indiana that would be the race that would be most likely to flip," he said, based on the district's demographics.

Shufeldt said the 9th District is Indiana's House district that's closest to having a 50-50 Democratic and Republican split, even though it's still Republican leaning. He noted that Hollingsworth is in his first term and incumbents' first re-election bids are generally their hardest because they haven't built as much name recognition in their short time in Congress.

2nd District

Republican U.S. Rep. Rep. Jackie Walorski faces Methodist minister-turned-health care company executive Mel Hall in the 2nd District. Shufeldt said the South Bend-area district was a Democratic-leaning district until the 2010 redistricting left it more favorable for Republicans.

Walorski easily won her last two re-election campaigns, but Shufeldt said the district and the 9th District are the two races where the two candidates could end up within 10 percentage points when the final votes are counted.

He said that Hall, who has campaigned on his experience in business and on health care issues, is among the crop of stronger candidates Democrats have recruited this year, and there's a chance, although less than in the 9th District, of an upset.

6th District

Greg Pence, a 61-year-old Marine veteran and owner of two antique malls, faces Democrat Jeannine Lee Lake, who publishes a bimonthly Muncie newspaper and recently got an endorsement from comedian David Letterman. Pence, who once ran the now-bankrupt chain of Tobacco Road convenience stores and has never held office, is the favorite to win the 6th District seat.

4th District

State Rep. Jim Baird, a Greencastle Republican, is facing Democrat Tobi Beck, an Army veteran and foster mother from Avon, just west of Indianapolis. Baird, who lost his left arm during combat in the Vietnam War, finished ahead of Steve Braun—GOP Senate nominee Mike Braun's brother—in the May primary. Baird, a farm owner, is the favorite to win in the 4th District.

Other races

Republican incumbents Susan Brooks, Jim Banks and Larry Bucshon are expected to win re-election to their seats in the 5th, 3rd and 8th districts.

Democrats Pete Visclosky and Andre Carson are also expected to hang onto their seats in the 1st and 7th Districts.

Senate race impact

Indiana's hotly contested U.S. Senate race between Donnelly and Braun will likely have some impact on Indiana's House races, although how much remains unclear, said James A. McCann, a Purdue University political science professor.

"The parties are pumping a lot of money into the Braun and Donnelly campaigns and some of that might naturally spillover into the local level. These races are not separate and the statewide Indiana Senate race represents one thing that might make this cycle a little distinctive," he said.

Party enthusiasm

Indiana GOP chairman Kyle Hupfer said Republicans expect both Walorski and Hollingsworth to hold onto their seats, based on data and feedback from the 2nd and 9th districts. He said all seven House districts Republicans now hold have enjoyed strong fundraising and he predicts the party will keep all seven. Hupfer said that if there is a Democratic wave in the midterm elections, "I just don't see that wave hitting here."

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said the party has seen strong Democratic enthusiasm as it works to boost turnout among college students and other Democratic-leaning populations this year, particularly in the 2nd and 9th districts. While President Donald Trump remains popular in Indiana—a state he carried by roughly 19 percentage points in 2016—Zody says Democrats are seeing "an unprecedented amount of energy and enthusiasm around an alternative."

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