Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Three Republican congressmen from Indiana are struggling to fend off Democratic challengers in races considered crucial to the battle for the House, upending the widespread notion that the Hoosier state is solidly Republican red.

President Bush won the state by 21 percentage points in 2004, but Hoosiers say the Democratic base has long been alive and well.

Indiana “Democrats are … more socially conservative than a national Democrat,” said Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel. The Democrat heads the largest city in the battleground 8th District.

Conservatism is playing out in two of the races:

• In the 8th District, Rep. John Hostettler, a Republican, is down 10 points to his Democratic rival, Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth, who is pro-life, pro-gun and pro-border fence.

• In the 2nd District, a new Zogby poll shows Rep. Chris Chocola, a Republican, trailing Joe Donnelley, a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat, by 13 points.

“It makes for a spirited exercise in democracy,” said Mr. Chocola, who is not surprised by the competitive races.

Indiana’s delegation to the House had a balance of candidates from both parties until 2002. It now has seven Republicans and two Democrats. Six of the seven Republican incumbents’ districts had a Democratic representative at least once in the past two decades.

White House senior political strategist Karl Rove has referred to Indiana as ground zero in the midterm elections, as Democrats pursue a 15-seat gain to win control of the House. Both parties are focusing efforts in Indiana.

In the 9th District, a Zogby poll shows Rep. Mike Sodrel, a Republican, down two points to former Rep. Baron Hill, whom Mr. Sodrel defeated by 1,500 votes in 2004.

Mr. Hill had a more liberal voting record in his three terms in Congress, but the district gave Democrat Lee Hamilton a 30-year tenure, said William Blomquist, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“If past is prologue, maybe he’ll pick up where he left off in the House,” Mr. Blomquist said.

Increasing violence in Iraq and a surplus of pork-barrel spending have Hoosiers upset with the incumbents, said David McIntosh, a Republican who lost his Indiana gubernatorial challenge to a Democrat in 2000, the same year the state voted for Mr. Bush.

Mr. McIntosh said Democrats also are helped by voter discontent with the state’s adoption of daylight-saving time and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels’ privatization of a toll road through the 2nd District.

“What kind of party are they when they get back there if they get the majority?” Mr. McIntosh asked. “If they go back to the liberal party … I think those people will find themselves as outcasts and either become Republicans or lose their seats.”

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