By MARK SCHOEFF JR.

WASHINGTON - Over the last 12 years, Baron Hill has won, lost, won back and lost again his U.S. House seat in southeast Indiana. All of the campaigns were intense and many were decided by a razor-thin margin. For the moment, it looks as if Hill is taking a break from electoral politics. In an interview with HPI on Wednesday, he all but ruled out a run for governor.  It’s an office that entices him – but not in this cycle.

“I don’t think that will happen in 2012,” Hill said in a phone conversation between votes during the lame-duck session of Congress. “I think the timing isn’t right this time around." He didn’t completely close out the notion of running for chief executive of Indiana. “I’m keeping the door slightly open,” he said.

One of the factors that likely will keep Hill, 57, out of the contest is that he’s facing unemployment as of January. “I need to make a living,” Hill said. “I’ve got to go to work. I have to provide…for my family.”
He said that he has been discussing job possibilities. He wouldn’t reveal whether he will end up in Indianapolis or Washington – or a combination of both. “My heart is back in Indiana,” said Hill, who recently became a grandfather.

Heart – and strenuous effort – has been required for Hill to survive politically in the section of Indiana he has represented off-and-on since 1998, when he won the 9th CD seat. That conservative-leaning, rural district, which stretches from Bloomington to the suburbs of Cincinnati to Jeffersonville and over to Dubois and Spencer counties, is tough terrain for a Democrat to defend.  Hill lost by 10 points, 52-42, to Republican Todd Young.

The challenge was even tougher this year, when outside groups poured $1.3 million into the race to defeat Hill. Outside spending against Young totaled $1.6 million. The race was costly for Hill and Young, who spent $2.164 million and $1.956 million, respectively. The decisive factor in the race, however, was not campaign outlays but the awful political atmosphere for Democrats created by a faltering economy, according to Hill.

“I could have spent $20 million and not been able to win the race because there was a tidal wave,” Hill said. “There wasn’t much I could do about it.” With persistently high unemployment and a sluggish recovery dominating the lives of constituents, Democrats took a misguided detour into health care reform in 2009, according to Hill. “We should have focused on the economy,” Hill said. “Hindsight is always 20-20.”
Nonetheless, Democrats did keep the economy out of a depression by passing the stimulus bill, bailing out auto companies and implementing the cash-for-clunkers and homeowner tax credit programs, according to Hill.

“We actually saved this economy from going over an economic disaster cliff,” he said. “We as Democrats did that without any Republican support. It saved the country.”

Although the timing for its consideration could have been better, Hill is not backing down from his support of the health care bill. With a combative tenor that reflects a competitive nature honed on Hoosier basketball courts in his youth, Hill defended his vote. He said that over time, Americans will benefit from fundamental changes to the health care system ushered in by the law, such as eliminating the ability of insurers to reject coverage for pre-existing conditions. “It’s the right thing to do for the country,” Hill said. “When people look back in 10 years, they will thank Congress for what we did.”

Hill’s only regret about his support for the climate change, or cap-and-trade bill, that the House approved in 2009 is that “we didn’t get the job done in the Senate.” He said that the bill would have reduced America’s dependence on foreign oil. But that wasn’t the message that came out of the debate. “It got framed in bad terms,” Hill said. “The overall goal was to make us energy independent. Here we are back at square one. And we have no pathway to get out of it.”

One of the biggest local opponents of the bill, Indiana coal companies, misunderstood the measure, according to Hill. He said he inserted a provision that would have provided billions in incentives for research and development of clean coal.

“This would have been a real shot in the arm for coal companies,” Hill said.

Hill may have the chance to make the case for the health care and energy bills again, if he returns to politics. The 10 years he spent representing southeast Indiana are not likely to be his last in public office. “I may have a race in me yet,” he said. Which office? “To be determined.”