Indiana 'moderately' interesting

Salena Zito
|
Posted: Mar 07, 2010 12:32 AM
WASHINGTON – Shock waves over Evan Bayh’s retirement from the U.S. Senate still are felt along the 600 miles between the nation’s capital and Indiana.

Blaming the Washington Beltway’s toxic politics, Bayh declared: "I love working for the people of Indiana … but I do not love Congress."

He’s not the only one: The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll put disapproval of Congress at 71 percent. That is not a whole lot of love for anyone in this town, regardless of political persuasion. Bayh’s consistent message has been that moderates should have room at the table but don’t, and plenty of House members whisper the same thing along Capitol halls.

Game Change FREE

In 2008 Indiana endured two historic elections – the Democrats’ primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and November’s general election.

The primary was historic because it never really mattered before. Its timing in May typically came long after the field had cleared – but 2008 was not a typical year; Clinton still was technically in the race because Obama had not clinched the magic number of super-delegates needed to secure the party’s nomination.

The general election was historic because it marked the first time in 44 years that the Hoosier State picked a Democrat for president.

So was there joy among Democrats that Indiana finally was in their corner?

Hardly.

“The Hoosier state only went for Barack Obama by 12,000 votes, a razor-thin margin,” explains Purdue University political science professor Bert Rockman. “Republicans won overwhelmingly in other statewide races.”

The presidential vote margin resulted from intense mobilization on college campuses and among minorities.

Unless those groups can be as intensely mobilized as in 2008, 2010 and 2012 will be difficult for Indiana Democrats.

In the off-year gubernatorial elections of 2009, the turnout among under-30 voters fell to 9 percent in New Jersey from a 2008 high of 17 percent; just 10 percent showed up in Virginia, down from 21 percent a year earlier.

Indiana Democrats are dismissed as “conservacrats” by such progressive websites as Firedoglake, which would prefer to run progressive challengers in the primary than to see center-right incumbents re-elected.

In 2008, Bayh was one of those “flaming moderates” or conservacrats who went out with Obama to lure hesitant Hillary voters and Republicans. What will his exit do to Democrats’ chances of holding his Senate seat, and to down-ballot races?

Three of Indiana’s U.S. House seats have the potential to swing back to Republicans: the 8th, held by Brad Ellsworth, the likely Democrat choice to replace Bayh; the 2nd, held by Joe Donnelly; and the 9th, held by Baron Hill.

Rockman describes Ellsworth, a former Republican sheriff, as “the Dems’ answer to Scott Brown,” Massachusetts’ newly-elected Republican U.S. senator. His district leans Republican but can be competitive with the right candidate.

“Donnelly’s seat is also highly competitive,” Rockman says. “It moves across parties with some regularity. He could be in trouble in a year that looks unfavorable to the incumbents.”

Rep. Hill, who considered a run for Bayh’s seat, has an impressive campaign war chest and is the most “regular” Dem of the three. It’s tough to tell if he can hold on, Rockman predicts.

Only one GOP congressman will retire in the state. Rep. Steve Buyer, who has held the 4th district for 18 years, is a down-the-line Republican in an overwhelmingly (and very gerrymandered) GOP district. It’s tough to see Democrats picking up his seat.

Rockman says Republicans can pick up two Indiana seats and, “if everything goes their way, as many as three.” He is uncertain about Bayh’s seat, though.

That race probably will pit Democrat Ellsworth against Republican Dan Coats, the state’s former U.S. senator. Or the Republican could be former congressman John Hostetler, which would set up an interesting rematch: Ellsworth ended Hostetler’s congressional career, crushing him by 22 points. If the Beltway is looking at Indiana as a bellwether state, it is looking too far west; Pennsylvania is a better barometer.

After all, Indiana is pretty consistently Republican in presidential races and, while it tends to be competitive in federal races, most candidates on both sides are pretty moderate – the people that Evan Bayh says have no place in Washington.