Apart from the 7th District in the middle and the 1st District in the northwest, Indiana's congressional map is entirely red.
But several Democrats are mounting challenges to GOP incumbents or going after an open seat currently held by a Republican — a sign that Democrats are looking to keep their options open should the presidential race make the state's map more competitive.
On Wednesday, Democrat Lynn Coleman, a retired South Bend police officer, declared his intention to run against 2nd District Rep. Jackie Walorski.
In a district that Mitt Romney carried by 14 points, Coleman's odds look daunting. But then again, that same year, Walorski only won her seat by a point and a half.
"It's probably unwinnable in an off-year, but in a presidential year there's a really great chance, especially if our nominee is Hillary Clinton," Paul Tencher, 2012 campaign manager for Sen. Joe Donnelly, said. Coleman, a former assistant to the South Bend mayor, is assembling Democratic support. St. Joseph County Democratic Party Chairman Jason Critchlow told the South Bend Tribune he recruited Coleman, who has met with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Coleman was scheduled to make a campaign announcement Friday with Donnelly, but the event has been postponed because of votes keeping the senator in Washington. Donnelly used to represent the 2nd District seat until he ran for the Senate.
But the district has changed since 2010, when redistricting removed some of its Democratic base, Tencher said. Winning in this very Catholic district (home to the University of Notre Dame) requires running as a different kind of Democrat, Tencher said — one who embraces labor and if supportive of abortion is not vocal about it.
"You’re gonna break some Democratic hearts along the way, but you need to take a moderate profile," he said. "There's a persuadable base there," state Democratic Party Chairman John Zody added, explaining that voters in the 2nd District value "common sense" candidates. The Hoosier common sense message is one that Democrats credit with having helped Donnelly win statewide in 2012.
Republicans, though, point to Walorski's commanding victory in 2014, when she defeated her Democratic opponent by 20 points, and explain away her narrow 2012 victory by pointing to the downward pressure 2012 Senate nominee Richard Mourdock and his controversial rape comments put on the Republican ticket.
Of the three districts where Democrats think they have a decent shot at being competitive, the 2nd is their biggest opportunity, Tencher said. The manufacturing and agriculture-heavy district has a single media market, South Bend, which is relatively inexpensive and makes it attractive to to Democrats hoping to pick up a seat.
But that hasn't stopped Democrats from mounting candidacies in other parts of the state, too.
Monroe City Council member Shelli Yoder is running for the 9th District, which Rep. Todd Young is vacating to run for Senate. Young defeated Yoder in 2012 by 11 points. A former Miss Indiana, Yoder now teaches at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.
"I'm a different kind of Democrat, and I will always put common sense over partisan ideology," Yoder said when announcing her campaign.
Romney carried the 9th District, home to the Indiana University-Bloomington, by 17 points in 2012. Also working against Democrats there is that the Indianapolis media market is expensive.
"It would be smart to focus on the 2nd and 9th," Tencher said of Democrats' strategy. He predicts the DCCC will cut one of those districts after Labor Day next year.
The 8th District, where former state Rep. David Orentlicher is challenging 8th District Rep. Larry Bucshon, is less competitive because of major redistricting, Tencher said.
Orentlicher has practiced medicine and law and teaches both at several universities in Indiana. Elected in 2010 by 20 points, Bucshon had a slightly narrower 10-point victory in 2012, before defeating his Democratic opponent in 2014 by 25 points.
"You kind of never know," one Democratic operative said. "A lot of it depends on how the presidential race plays out. If there's a crazy nominee, then obviously Democrats' chances improve," the source added.
Democrats want to be ready should a Republican nominee hurt down-ballot GOP candidates. In red states such as Arizona, Arkansas and Missouri, Democrats are challenging incumbent Republican senators , hoping that a presidential nominee like Donald Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will help put their states in play .
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