- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Conservative stalwart Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana finds himself unexpectedly in a re-election dogfight in his bid for a 15th term in office, facing several well-funded opponents in Tuesday’s Republican primary.

And while many political oddsmakers expect the lawmaker to eke out a victory in his mixed suburban and rural district, Mr. Burton — like many established Republican incumbents nationwide — is facing an unusual backlash from challengers and voters within the party who complain he has overstayed his welcome in Washington.

The Burton race is one of many House and Senate primary races facing voters Tuesday in Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina as the midterm election season kicks into higher gear.

“I think [Mr. Burton’s] chances of winning renomination are about 50/50, and the only reason they are as high as they are is that he’s facing not one credible challenger but several,” said David Wasserman, who covers House races for the Cook Political Report.

Indiana Republican primary races typically are well-disciplined affairs, with the party tightly controlling candidate rolls to ensure support isn’t diluted among multiple entrants.

But discontent for Mr. Burton, who won his 2008 race with 66 percent of the vote, has risen within GOP ranks to a level unseen since his initial run for Congress in 1982, resulting in a half-dozen primary challengers.

Former Indiana Republican Party Executive Director Luke Messer is considered by many to be Mr. Burton’s most competitive opponent. Mr. Messer has gained the endorsement of several Indiana elected officials, party leaders and activists, and has raised money from more than 900 contributors. He also boasts of having more than 6,000 friends and supporters on Facebook.

State Rep. Mike Murphy, small-business owner Brose McVey and former Marion County Coroner John McGoff, who came close to defeating Mr. Burton two years ago, also are seen as legitimate challengers.

The Indianapolis Star, the largest newspaper in Mr. Burton’s 5th Congressional District, didn’t make a primary endorsement.

But in an editorial last week headlined “Challengers better than Burton,” the paper complained that the lawmaker “has become increasingly unresponsive to the people he was elected to serve” and that Mr. Murphy, Mr. McVey and Mr. McGoff all “would be a significant improvement over the incumbent.”

Indiana doesn’t have primary runoffs, so Tuesday’s victor — who could win with less than 35 percent of the vote — will represent the party in the general election. But with the Indiana district considered one of the most Republican in the country, the winner is expected to face little competition in November.

Although other Republican congressmen are facing primary opponents, Mr. Burton, 71, is dealing with “tea party”-aligned activists who say he isn’t conservative enough.

Their anger persists even though Mr. Burton’s conservative positions have been fairly consistent throughout his more than 27 years on Capitol Hill. Unlike many other congressional Republicans, Mr. Burton in 2008 voted against the unpopular $700 billion Wall Street bailout, avoiding a thorny issue that may topple some of his colleagues running for re-election.

Instead, it’s Mr. Burton’s aloof and occasionally eccentric behavior that is turning off voters, political analysts say.

“He has never been — ever — really that highly regarded by the Republicans in the state. He has been a — dare I use the word — maverick,” said Brian Vargus, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“Nobody embraced him, but they didn’t touch him either. … He’s got a strange relationship with his own party.” Mr. Vargus said.

Mr. Burton generally avoids the media, and critics say he is out of touch with local party leaders and activists, particularly in the Indianapolis suburbs he represents. He fares better in the rural areas of his district, analysts say.

Much of the reason for his sagging popularity in his district’s urban and commercial core is his focus on pet issues that either don’t resonate or rub against his constituency.

Chief among those he has alienated is Eli Lilly, an Indianapolis pharmaceutical giant and major employer. Mr. Burton has been outspoken in his opposition to the Eli Lilly-produced chemical thimerosal, which he says may have led to his grandson’s autism.

“He marches to the beat of his own drum,” Mr. Wasserman said.

Critics long have railed against him for poor attendance record in the House and for his love of golf. The Star reported in 2007 that Mr. Burton skipped a string of 19 key House votes earlier that year so he could play in a golf tournament in Palm Springs, Calif. — a political blunder that opponents still use against him.

Mr. Burton’s primary opponents also have criticized him for using out-of-state actors to play supposedly happy constituents in a television advertisement.

“This is one [race] that if I were a bookie I wouldn’t want to take any bets on it,” Mr. Vargus said. “This is a bizarre primary for Indiana.”

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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