Chris Sautter: Indiana's top 10 primary upsets
Tuesday, May 08, 2012 3:22 AM
WASHINGTON - Primary upsets are rare, perhaps, rarer in Indiana. Even in volatile political years when incumbents have been defeated in greater than usual numbers, very few lost in primary elections. With U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar teetering on the brink of an upset today - and if that happens it would almost certainly move into the No. 1 spot - here are 10 of Indiana’s historic primary upsets in recent years which prove anything is possible in politics:
1. Bobby Kennedy Over Branigin, McCarthy (1968): Indiana was for Robert F. Kennedy what West Virginia was for his brother John F. Kennedy in 1960 — an inhospitable but necessary stop on the way to the Democratic nomination. RFK had to overcome intense opposition from the party establishment who backed favorite son candidate Gov. Roger Branigin, organized labor, business, and the Indianapolis Star. Even most anti-war voters were already supporting Senator Eugene McCarthy. That forced Kennedy in his first test after belatedly entering the presidential race to forge a new coalition made up of “Black Power and Backlash.” His unique chemistry with lower classes allowed him to make critical inroads among the state’s white blue-collar workers and family farmers. It was in Indiana that Kennedy became the first political leader to try to bring together an America torn apart by racial divisions and an unpopular war.
2. Pete Visclosky Unseats Katie Hall (1984): Katie Hall was the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress after winning a special election in 1982 to succeed Adam Benjamin who died in office. But facing Democratic primary voters for the first time in 1984, Hall was challenged by Lake County Prosecutor Jack Crawford and former Benjamin aide Peter Visclosky. Most observers predicted Hall would win as Crawford and Visclosky split the white vote. But Visclosky, originally handicapped as third in the race, prevailed in the Byzantine politics of Northwest Indiana, defeating Hall and her powerful patron Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher by running as a reform candidate and the natural successor to the popular Benjamin.
3. Adam Benjamin prevails over Ray Madden (1976): Ray Madden was 84 years old and had served almost 34 years in the House when State Sen. Adam Benjamin took him on for the second time in the 1976 Democratic primary. Benjamin had narrowly lost to Madden in 1972. But now Benjamin was challenging him in a post-Watergate environment and the younger, more dynamic and independent Benjamin was more in tune with the times.
4. Brent Waltz Upsets Larry Borst (2004): Larry Borst, a 36-year state Senate veteran who served as the powerful chairman of the Finance Committee, began with a huge seemingly insurmountable lead over 28-year old conservative Johnson County Councilman Brent Waltz. Waltz’s campaign was unrelentingly aggressive, hitting Borst repeatedly for his moderate votes on taxes, abortion, and special perks such as lifetime health benefits. After a recount, Waltz had nosed out Borst by a mere 38 votes.
5. Greg Walker Knocks Off Bob Garton (2006): Bob Garton’s 36 years and status as Pro-Tem in the Indiana Senate counted for little when political newcomer Greg Walker challenged him. Garton had been a moderate Republican, even championing the Equal Rights Amendment in his early days. But like Borst, Garton’s moderate views had grown out-of-favor with an increasingly conservative Republican base. Walker, following Brent Waltz’s playbook against Larry Borst, won with the help of conservative churches, anti-abortion activists, and insurance magnate J. Patrick Rooney. Garton’s role in creating lifetime health benefits for state senators became an albatross as a majority of Republican voters concluded Garton had grown out-of-touch.
6. Julia Carson Surprises Ann DeLaney (1996): Ann DeLaney was not an incumbent, but she had been a top adviser to Gov. Evan Bayh and served as the Democratic State Chair. DeLaney’s fundraising advantage bought extensive television advertising that along with an Indianapolis Star poll showing DeLaney ahead gave the appearance of DeLaney as the frontrunner. But Carson, a former state senator and Center Township Trustee, had built an extensive grassroots network that was underestimated by DeLaney and undercounted by pollsters. An endorsement by retiring Congressman Andy Jacobs brought undecided voters into Carson’s camp as her ground troops swamped the opposition. DeLaney, confident of victory and looking ahead to the general election, ended the primary campaign with money in the bank.
7. Jill Long Thompson Holds Back Jim Schellinger (2008): Political novice Jim Schellenger was recruited by party leaders to run against Gov. Mitch Daniels and enjoyed strong establishment support and a substantial fundraising advantage over former Congresswoman and Clinton administration official Jill Long Thompson. But Schellinger’s inexperience and controversies related to his architectural business undercut the advantages handed to him. Long Thompson, with the help of a key endorsement from the Steelworkers, rolled up large enough margins in the northern part of the state to give her the narrow upset over Schellinger and party officials.
8. Dan Burton Beats Bruce Melchert (1982): Danny Burton’s familiar campaign strategy of divide-and-conquer was never better executed than when he won the race for an open suburban Indianapolis seat created by the Republican-controlled General Assembly specifically for State Chair Bruce Melchert. Burton had first been elected to the state legislature when he was 28 years old, but had lost congressional bids in 1970 and 1972. Burton won in 1982 by outhustling Melchert and his three other opponents. He sent volunteers into small Hoosier towns on a fire truck he had purchased for the campaign and benefited by a tough image projected in his TV ads.
9. Jeff Ellington Sneaks Up On Jerry Bales (1998): Maverick 11-term State Rep. Jerry Bales was popular and considered close to untouchable in the general election in this Bloomington area Republican seat. But conservative Jeff Ellington edged him in the primary by only 26 votes with the help of Monroe County churchgoers who were upset with Bales over his abortion votes. Pro-life Democrat Peggy Welch defeated Ellington in the general election and has held the seat since, though she faces a tough general election this November in a redrawn district even after State Rep. Ralph Foley, who was drawn into the same district, decided to retire.
10. John Hostettler Surprises Republican Field (1994): John Hostettler’s unorthodox below-the-radar approach to campaigning enjoyed its first success against a large field in the Republican 8th District primary in 1994. Attorney/conservative talk-show host Les Shively was the party favorite and presumptive front-runner while local attorney Jeff Devine had the support of former Governor and Evansville native Robert Orr. But Hostettler, whom party regulars and the media almost completely discounted, quietly worked the churches, evangelicals, right-to-lifers, and gun groups to win the nomination on his way to defeating six-term incumbent Democrat Frank McCloskey in the year of the “Republican Revolution.”