Monday, February 13, 2006

Indiana’s 8th: For the Democrats, It’s Now or Never

By Stuart Rothenberg

Democrats are poised to defeat Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) in November. And they better succeed — because if they don’t, they might as well forget about ever defeating him.

Hostettler, a six-term conservative from southwest Indiana, has been a Democratic target since he was first elected in 1994. But Democratic hype about beating him has never proved reliable, and the combination of Hostettler’s committed base and money from the National Republican Congressional Committee has kept the seat in GOP hands.

This year, the Democrats have a challenger who looks like the real deal. And with the national landscape strongly favoring change and Democrats, Hostettler should be a dead duck. But can Democrats finally finish him off?

The Democrats’ challenger, Brad Ellsworth, 47, started working as a law enforcement officer in the Vanderburgh County sheriff’s office in 1982, right out of college. In 1998, he was elected sheriff, and four years later he won a second term. Neither race was close.

Tall and with the sort of macho good looks that are likely to turn more than a few female heads, Ellsworth is well-spoken and comes off as surprisingly poised for a local law enforcement official who doesn’t have extensive political experience.

The Democrat lacks a legislative record, which is a problem for Republicans who will undoubtedly try to demonize him as a liberal. Even more of a problem for national GOP strategists is that on the issues, Ellsworth appears to be a very moderate Democrat.

He opposes legal abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, and he would support a constitutional amendment to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. He also strongly opposes the quick exit from Iraq at a certain date, proposed by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), even shaking his head to emphasize how wrong the Pennsylvanian’s approach is.

On trade, however, Ellsworth adopts a more traditional Democratic “fair trade” stance, opposing the Central American Free Trade Agreement as “taking jobs from our workers.”

The challenger has hired a strong campaign team and has raised almost $450,000 for his race, ending December with $370,706 in the bank.

An early June poll for Ellsworth of voters in Vanderburgh County, which includes Evansville, by the firm Garin-Hart-Yang found that the sheriff was extremely popular in his home county and had the kind of support there that would make him Hostettler’s toughest opponent ever.

Hostettler put together his biggest victory in 2004, but even then he drew just 53.4 percent of the vote. His closest race came in 1996, his first bid for re-election, when he won by just 50 percent to 48.3 percent.

Hostettler’s support isn’t wide, but it is extremely deep. He has a core of socially conservative, often evangelical followers who are fervently committed to his re-election. They turn out every two years, no matter who he’s running against or what the national political environment looks like.

The Congressman is consistently conservative, whether on abortion, gun control or government spending. Sometimes his loyalty to conservative principles is so strong that he breaks with President Bush. He opposed the Bush administration’s prescription drug benefit, and he often votes against spending bills. He was one of a handful of Republican Representatives who opposed giving the president the authority to attack Iraq.

Hostettler has not avoided criticism or controversy. He treats the local and national media alike — as if he doesn’t care what they think. He tends not to be diplomatic in his language, most notably when he offended breast cancer survivors in a Capitol Hill meeting. A one-time Hostettler supporter complained to me recently that the Congressman “is impervious to logic, to reason.”

Hostettler’s fundraising reputation is almost unmatched: He is among the worst fundraisers of House Members in competitive districts. Every two years, the NRCC is forced to pour money into television ads to defend the Congressman and attack his opponent.

Challengers have outraised Hostettler in three of the past four cycles, and that is likely to happen again this time. In the previous cycle, Democrat Jon Jennings raised, despite glaring weaknesses, $1.5 million, compared to the Congressman’s $480,210.

This cycle, Hostettler is showing his usual fundraising zeal. At the end of December, he had $36,587 in the bank, about one-tenth of what Ellsworth showed at year’s end.

Hostettler runs a very insular political operation, surrounding himself with friends and relatives and generally rejecting professional advice. Given his repeated success, it’s silly to underestimate him or to predict that he will not, once again, survive.

But in many ways, Ellsworth is a stunningly attractive challenger, and this is by far the Democrats’ best opportunity to regain this evenly divided Congressional district. If they don’t win in November, they will never beat Hostettler.

It’s now or never. And it certainly looks like it is now.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 9, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.