Chris Sautter: Predicting those rare Indiana primary upsets
Tuesday, April 26, 2016 9:32 AM
WASHINGTON – The party nomination process is a bit like March Madness. We root for the upset in the early rounds, but we expect the established teams to end up in the finals. We root for upsets in politics too, even though they are infrequent. They are especially rare in primary elections.
Primary election upsets are rare mostly because those backing the established candidate have too much at stake to lose and are willing to put their money where there mouth is. But occasionally voters decide that it’s time to stick it to the establishment candidate.
In 2012, in what is arguably Indiana’s biggest ever primary upset, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock knocked off six-term incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar, who was considered so unbeatable that Democrats did not even field a candidate against him in 2006. In 2008 former Congresswoman Jill Long Thompson defeated Jim Schellinger for the Democratic nomination for governor, although Schellinger was recruited to run by party leaders and he outspent her by more than 2 to 1.
There have been other notable upsets and I wrote about some a few years back in a column titled “Indiana’s Top Ten Primary Upsets.” At the top of my list was Bobby Kennedy defeating Indiana Gov. Roger Branigin and Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968.
Some today may wonder how a Kennedy win would be considered an upset. But RFK’s advisors counseled against running in the Indiana primary, his first after announcing he would challenge incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson. Kennedy didn’t think he could win the nomination if he avoided states like Indiana, even though the entire Hoosier Democratic establishment was backing Branigin (who was a stand-in first for LBJ and then Hubert Humphrey after Johnson bowed out) and Gene McCarthy who had cornered the anti-Vietnam War vote. Kennedy won by patching together an unlikely coalition of African Americans and Hoosier rednecks — what speechwriter and journalist Jack Newfield called “black power and backlash.”
This year, Donald Trump is the underdog turned frontrunner in the GOP nomination race. After stumbling in Wisconsin, Trump rides into Indiana on a roll. The Real Clear Politics polling average puts Trump ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz by 6.3%. But the establishment sees the Hoosier showdown as perhaps the last chance to stop Trump from amassing enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot. Realizing this, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have cut an old-fashioned political deal whereby Kasich pulls out of Indiana and Cruz takes a pass on Oregon and New Mexico. Of course, there is no guarantee Kasich’s voters will follow script and stomach a switch to the detestable Cruz. But the arrangement does shake up the race, making the outcome of the primary now virtually impossible to predict.
On the Democratic side, Hillary’s Real Clear Political polling composite of 4% is within the margin of error. Still, it would be a mild upset if Sanders would win Indiana, given most Democrats have concluded he can no longer win the nomination (unless the FBI intervenes with a report so damning her support collapses). However, Indiana has been hospitable at times to Democratic presidential underdogs. Gary Hart beat Mondale in 1984 and Hillary Clinton (by May of 2008, Obama was the clear frontrunner) nosed out Barack Obama in 2008. Don’t be surprised if Sanders narrowly pulls off the mild upset.
The action in the U.S. Senate primary is all on the Republican side, since Democrat Baron Hill is running unopposed. Congressman Todd Young, the pick of the GOP establishment, enjoys a double-digit lead over conservative Congressman Marlin Stutzman. Stutzman might have had a chance in this one but he has run an extremely poor campaign punctuated by last week’s revelation that he converted campaign funds to personal use. Young reminds some observers of Dan Quayle, a bit of a lightweight whose career has been aided by impeccable timing. There will be no upset in the U.S. Senate primary.
GOP primaries in the 3rd and 9th CDs are the most competitive in the state. In the 3rd district (Fort Wayne area), there are six Republicans vying for a nomination that is almost certainly tantamount to election. According to most observers, State Sen. Jim Banks and farmer Kip Tom are leading the pack with Banks considered the frontrunner. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette endorsed Tom, who is running as an outsider and has spent a great deal of his own money. An upset victory by outsider Kip Tom over establishment Jim Banks is a definite possibility here.
In the 9th CD, Trey Hollingsworth and his father have spent a couple of million dollars turning the entire Republican establishment and the Indiana media against him. He’s even managed to generate interest from the national media with his spending spree. Attorney General Greg Zoeller began the race as the frontrunner. Negative ads by a super PAC run by Hollingsworth’s father have brought Zoeller’s numbers down and may have knocked him out of the race. State Sen. Erin Houchin, who won her seat upsetting Democratic Senate leader Richard Young, is now running ahead of Zoeller. It’s hard to imagine that a candidate from Tennessee winning an election in Indiana wouldn’t be considered an upset. But recent polling suggests Hollingsworth could outlast a divided field of four others. Multi-candidate primary elections can produce unanticipated results and just about any result is possible here.
In the 2nd, 8th, and 9th CDs, favored Democratic candidates face nuisance opponents. In the 2nd CD, the likeable Lynn Coleman, a former South Bend deputy mayor and police officer, is a first-time candidate, but should win the nomination over Douglas Carpenter for the right to face Republican incumbent Jackie Walorski. In the 8th district, former State Rep. David Orentlicher, a Harvard educated doctor and lawyer, faces former state legislator Ron Drake before taking on incumbent Larry Bucshon, also a physician. Orentlicher has raised over $200,000 to Drake’s $2,500, so Orentlicher should win. And, in the 9th district, 2012 Democratic nominee and Monroe County Council member Shelli Yoder should easily defeat two primary opponents with little name recognition. If any of these favored candidates are upset, Democrats will turn tough general election races into impossibilities.
While there is not likely to be an upset on the scale of Mourdock over Lugar, overall next Tuesday’s primary election may be one of the most interesting in recent times.
Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.