Chris Sautter: A Democratic year taking shape in Indiana
Saturday, October 29, 2016 10:24 AM
By CHRIS SAUTTER
Democrat Shelli Yoder campaigns deep in Trump/Pence country in Seymour last weekend. Her race against Republican Trey Hollingsworth is being watched as a national bellwether. (HPI Photo by Thomas Curry)
MIAMI – Indiana’s 9th Congressional district is a bellwether race. That according to Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, who named the race between Democrat Shelli Yoder and Republican Trey Hollingsworth as one of his top three House races to watch for a wave election for House Democrats.
A year ago, the 9th district was labeled “safe Republican” by respected handicappers Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg. Republicans have a built-in 9-point advantage in the 9th as a result of redistricting before the 2012 election. In fact, Yoder lost to incumbent and current U.S. Senate candidate Todd Young by 10% four years ago.
Very few observers gave Yoder a chance this time.
Now polling shows the race between Yoder and Hollingsworth tied. Yoder is clearly the superior candidate. She has learned from her first race and is generating intense enthusiasm among the Democratic faithful in Southern Indiana. She is a natural with a unique way to connect to everyday Hoosiers. Her campaign commercials tout that “Shelli is one of us” — a claim Hollingsworth has no way of making credibly.
In fact, Hollingsworth is a flawed candidate. He moved to Indiana from Tennessee a year ago because he calculated that an open seat in a district with multiple and expensive media markets would provide him - a self-funding candidate - the best chance to win. His self-serving business practices have been a liability. Many Republicans resent the way he parachuted in and used his father’s Super PAC to dispose of better-established candidates in the primary. Some Republicans even hope Hollingsworth loses to Yoder this year so that one of their own can run in 2018— sure to be a better year for the GOP—and make Yoder a one-termer.
But Hollingsworth has personal money, including his father’s Super PAC. The district is no longer the one held for 44 years by Democrats Lee Hamilton and Baron Hill. And, Yoder is still not well known to many voters. Hollingsworth will get the bulk of votes from voters who still don’t know much about either candidate because of his party affiliation. That being said, arguably any of the candidates Hollingsworth defeated in the primary would be in a stronger position to win the general.
As a result of some breaks and an extraordinary work ethic, Yoder has put herself in a position to win. If she does, she would become the first Hoosier Democrat to win a congressional seat held by a Republican in a presidential year since Lee Hamilton did it in 1964. That was the year of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater.
The question this year is whether the collapse of Donald Trump’s presidential chances nationally will generate enough of a wave in Indiana to push Yoder over the top in a Republican district. Republicans in the state and throughout the country are increasingly dispirited about their chances and there is now concern that declining enthusiasm for the ticket will depress turnout.
Indiana may have been slower to experience the political bump other states have following the release of the controversial Trump video and Clinton’s superior debate performances. But now several Hoosier Democrats appear poised for big wins depending to some extent on Trump’s performance in the state.
Journalist John Harwood, chief Washington Correspondent for CNBC, reported Sunday that internal Republican polls show the race between Clinton and Trump in Indiana now tied. Whether Clinton narrowly carries Indiana, as Barack Obama did in 2008, or narrowly loses it, Democrats are currently running ahead in the other two marquee races.
In the gubernatorial race, John Gregg has been running ahead in the polls since Republicans nominated Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb to replace Gov. Mike Pence after Pence joined Trump on the national ticket. Like Yoder, Gregg is a far more seasoned candidate than four years ago when he lost to Pence by only 3%. He has demonstrated that he is much more than simply the product of small town Indiana by unveiling a range of strong policy proposals to get Indiana back on track. After 12 years of Republican rule in Indiana, Democrat Gregg is the candidate of change and his message is resonating.
Holcomb, on the other hand, has struggled to establish an identity of his own. Because he has never won election in his own right, his base of support is entirely inherited from Pence and former governor Mitch Daniels. His agenda mirrors Pence’s. The problem is that Pence’s legacy is not entirely positive, as he never fully recovered from the fallout from the RFRA controversy. Holcomb’s campaign has no real traction and it is difficult to see how he can change the dynamics with less than two weeks to go. John Gregg is in the driver’s seat and that would likely be the case even if Trump’s campaign weren’t falling apart, though that is obviously helping.
The Cook Report revised its U.S. Senate ratings this week to project that Democrats will gain between five and seven seats. That is a change from a month ago when Republicans believed they could hold the Senate in spite of Trump’s lagging poll numbers. Now many Republicans are openly conceding the Senate is lost.
Trump’s problems may be a reason why Indiana’s Senate race appears to have stabilized after millions of dollars in negative ads by outside groups had helped Todd Young close a big gap in the polls. Republicans who were once optimistic that Young could pull off the upset have now become gloomy, as Young momentum has stalled.
The 2nd CD where Democrat Lynn Coleman is challenging incumbent Jackie Walorski is an under-the-radar race that could very well produce a surprise. Her allies were polling voters last weekend to test negative attacks against Coleman, suggesting they are getting worried about Warloski. Coleman is a good candidate but to date has been woefully underfunded. Four years ago, Walorski narrowly won 49%-48% in flipping the race after Joe Donnelly held the seat for three terms.
Former 9th CD Congressman Lee Hamilton has often credited the 1964 LBJ landslide for making possible his first election to the House. Describing the political climate that year, he has joked “any fool running as a Democrat could have won … and there were a few who did.” It is extremely unlikely that Hillary Clinton’s almost certain victory over Donald Trump will approach the magnitude of Johnson’s historic win. The odds are also against Democrats winning back control of the House, though prospects are rapidly improving. Nonetheless, a big Clinton win will help elect Senate, gubernatorial, and House candidates, including Hoosier Democrats Bayh, Gregg, Yoder, and Coleman.
Sautter is a Democratic consultant, an Indiana native, based in Washington.