Since February, the campaign for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Hoosier Democrat Evan Bayh has not been what most people envisioned. That’s when Bayh stunned political watchers and constituents by announcing he wouldn’t run for reelection. Indiana voters won’t have any Democrats in this primary race since Congressman Brad Ellsworth is the party’s pick for November. But voters will have five Republicans on Tuesday’s ballot. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports on that contest.
In the months leading up to Bayh’s startling notice of his retirement, only two Republicans had declared their candidacy for the Senate seat — former Congressman John Hostettler of the Evansville area and State Senator Marlin Stutzman of Northeast Indiana.
Then in early February, with tensions flaring between the parties over the health care overhaul, Dan Coats, the former U.S. Senator of Indiana, announced he wanted to challenge Bayh. Coasts had held the job from 1989 to 1998, and later became Ambassador to Germany. Since returning to the U.S. in 2005, he’s lived in Virginia and worked as a lobbyist. Within days of Coats’ announcement, Bayh withdrew and a few Republican long-shots also decided to run.
But it was Coats’ 2008 statements that got immediate attention from political opponents of all stripes including Democrats. They put out a video of him speaking to a delegation from North Carolina, home to his wife’s family.
“We have joined her parents in North Carolina,” he says to the delegation, “and we have a home down there, which we use as a second home but hope will be our first home. And I will be able to register and vote for your two Senators and Congressman and be a North Carolinian.”
Republican opponents have stressed their strongly conservative credentials while echoing concerns that Coats is no longer a bona fide Hoosier — but a Washington insider. They’ve criticized his record, including his votes supporting federal background checks for gun sales and bans on some semi-automatic weapons. And in a debate earlier this month, rival Marlin Stutzman brought up Coat’s record on Supreme Court nominations.
“I think back in the 1990s, when Senator Coats was there and voted for Justice Ginsberg,” Stutzman says. “That that sort of compromise is not good for the process. The confirmation hearings that go through the Senate are there for a reason. We don’t give the President a pass.”
Bring this up with Coats and he’s practically unflappable.
“You know, you get this stuff in politics,” he says.
He’s also somewhat nonchalant about his background in lobbying and the fact he doesn’t own a home in Indiana.
“My kids were born here,” he says. “I went to school here. Family is here. We’re Indiana residents.”
A statewide poll released this week by a political science center at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne shows 36 percent of respondents saying they would vote for Coats, putting him 12 point ahead of Hostettler and 18 ahead of Stutzman.
The poll also indicated 78 percent of Republicans favor the views of the Tea Party movement. That, says Bill Blomquist, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, should be evident to Tuesday’s voters.
“You’re going to see in 2010 more of an anti-experience, anti-establishment, anti-incumbent mood that’s likely to show up all over the ballot,” Blomquist says.
That mood and critiques of the poll’s methodology have Hostettler and Stutzman saying they can still win the primary.
“I think many in the Tea Party movement, but many people who aren’t in the movement, consider themselves disenfranchised Republicans,” Hostettler says.
At a gathering of Republicans in Corydon Thursday, several people I speak with who haven’t followed the race closely are leaning towards Coats. Then there are others like Norman Dennison of Mauckport.
“Dan Coats?” he says with a sigh. “My heart says to me he’s not the guy.”
Dennison says he’s long been a fan of Hostettler, who’s previously worked in Washington and who, Dennison says, is principled.
“We need somebody that knows what’s going on and is solid,” Dennison says.
Meanwhile, this weekend Coats and Stutzman have several hundred thousand dollars they will use to for ads in markets statewide. And Hostettler, who doesn’t have that kind of funding, says his campaign will be working to strengthen and mobilize a grassroots movement he’s been building through town hall meetings over the last five months.