Now in his 14th term, Republican Rep. Dan Burton is accustomed to easy victories. One of the most conservative members in the House, he has repeatedly garnered overwhelming support from voters in his central Indiana district -- until 2008, when a strong challenger nearly defeated him in the Republican primary.
This year, smelling blood in the water, at least four GOP contenders are coming after Burton. The 5th District -- the state's wealthiest -- stretches from the affluent suburbs around Indianapolis up through the rich farmland in the northern part of the state, and the victor in the May 4, 2010, primary should have a clear path to Washington; in the 2008 presidential race, Republican John McCain took 59 percent of the district's vote.
Burton's challengers include Luke Messer, a lawyer and former state representative; Brose McVey, a businessman and unsuccessful contender for another Indiana congressional seat in 2002; state Rep. Mike Murphy; and John McGoff, an emergency room physician who came close to unseating Burton in the 2008 primary.
Burton has not yet formally announced his candidacy, but has indicated to supporters that he is indeed running again. The most recent campaign finance reports, dated June 30, show that he has more than twice the cash on hand as any of his opponents -- but Messer was only about $48,000 behind in the first six months of fundraising for the year.
"Each of these challengers has a following of their own and are able to raise a good sum of money," said former Lt. Gov. John Mutz, a fellow Republican who served in the state legislature with Burton. "I guess what I would say is that the last election would have been the first time that I have seen that Dan appears to be vulnerable."
A Close Call
In the 2008 primary, Burton defeated McGoff by only 6.8 percentage points -- a stark contrast to the primaries in 2006, when he boasted a 74.6 percentage-point lead over his nearest challenger, and 2004, when he won by 77.2 percentage points.
"Now there's been an awakening within the party that, oh boy, this congressman really hasn't done a good job for us," said McGoff, explaining his second bid for the seat.
Burton's actions have drawn negative attention over the years. In June, for example, he was widely viewed as an alarmist for urging the House to thwart terrorist attacks by encasing the visitors' gallery in Plexiglas. In 2007, he was the only member of either party to vote against a House ethics package.
In 1998, as he was leading an investigation into President Clinton's coverup of a sexual relationship with an intern, Burton was forced to acknowledge that he had fathered a child out of wedlock in the 1980s. And following the 1994 suicide of Clinton's White House counsel, Vincent W. Foster Jr., he took up the cause of conspiracy theorists who contended that Foster was murdered -- and even conducted his own investigation by firing a gun into what he would describe only as a "head-like object" (reportedly either a pumpkin or a watermelon) in his back yard.
On the plus side, Burton has a reputation for strong constituent service, said Brian Vargus, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who lives in the district.