Indiana: Ground Zero Again

Retirement Rumors, Competitive House Races Make for Busy Election

Posted February 19, 2007 at 1:43pm

Indiana figured prominently in Democrats’ successful effort to win control of the House last year. Now it’s a hotbed of retirement rumors.

Even if the rumors don’t come to pass, the state could once again see a number of competitive House races in the 2008 cycle.

The newest buzz has Rep. Baron Hill (D), who just reclaimed the seat he lost to former Rep. Mike Sodrel (R) in the 2004 election, exiting for a gubernatorial run.

Through a spokesman Hill dismissed the claim, and Democrats say it is merely a GOP ploy to make pursuing his 9th district seat more inviting to a top-tier challenger, including Sodrel.

Should Sodrel attempt to win back the seat he held for one term, it would be the fourth matchup between the two.

Freshmen Reps. Brad Ellsworth (D) and Joe Donnelly (D), who captured seats last year in districts that President Bush won handily in 2004, also could face tough challenges in 2008.

But the more persistent chatter among Hoosier State political insiders includes Rep. Julia Carson (D), while Rep. Dan Burton (R) set fingers wagging and scuttlebutt flying when he missed key House votes last month to play in a celebrity golf tournament.

Concerns about Carson’s health fuel speculation about her political future.

She underwent heart bypass surgery in 1997, missed a week of work in 2003 for unspecified health reasons and was hospitalized shortly before Election Day 2004.

At the time, she said her hospitalization was the result of an adverse reaction to a flu shot. But she also had missed numerous votes that summer because she fell ill.

Of late, the 69-year-old Congresswoman has used a wheelchair to get around Capitol Hill and has relied on a cane.

“She is not in good health,” said one knowledgeable Democrat in Indiana, who did not want to be named. “I’d be surprised to see her run again in 2008.”

Carson’s office would not comment about her plans or her health situation.

A prominent columnist back home in Indianapolis has called on Carson to make this term — her sixth — her last. Her fitness for office and would-be successor have been the source of numerous rumination on blogs, too.

Democratic and Republican operatives think she is grooming her grandson, Andre Carson, to replace her.

“There’s been a noticeable push to get him out there,” the Democrat said.

A Republican operative familiar with Indiana said that as far back as her 2002 campaign, Andre Carson would make appearances on her behalf.

“He’s very likeable, very charismatic,” the GOP source said. “I wouldn’t be surprised” that she would like him to take her place in Congress, the source added.

Carson’s office also declined to discuss Andre Carson.

A host of Indianapolis-area Democratic politicians are waiting for the reliably Democratic seat to become available, officials in both parties say.

Among them are state Reps. Gregory Porter and Carolene Mays, as well as Center Township Trustee Carl Drummer.

Democratic operatives in Washington, D.C., say Carson has given no indication that she is ready to leave. They also concede that if she presses for a seventh term, she could put the seat in jeopardy.

Republican Eric Dickerson, a political newcomer, held Carson, who has served in political office since 1972, to 54 percent despite spending just $77,000 to her $605,000.

But the Republican operative said Carson’s support remains strong.

“People who underestimate her really end up in trouble,” the source said.

Meanwhile, Burton has been panned in his hometown papers for skipping 19 votes last month to play in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic golf tournament in California.

While some Congress-watchers took that to mean the veteran lawmaker would bail now that his party is in the minority, Burton has routinely played at the Bob Hope event and at another charity golf tournament — it’s just that those obligations haven’t conflicted directly with Congressional votes in the recent past.

Burton’s spokesman said he could not comment about the incident.

Republicans in Washington and Indiana say they have no reason to believe that Burton, who is now 68, will hang it up, but he has yet to say if he has designs on a 14th term.

The 5th district is safe GOP terrain — Bush captured 71 percent of the vote there in 2004 — but Burton’s perceived indifference to his Congressional duties could invite a primary challenge.

A Republican insider in Indiana doubts there will be a primary but conceded that intraparty competition has ramped up in the Hoosier State.

Two prominent state lawmakers, longtime state Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton and state Sen. Larry Borst, lost Republican nomination fights to upstarts in recent elections.

“I haven’t heard any names seriously, but there has always been talk” about Burton facing a primary challenge, the Republican operative said. “The biggest hurdle is $1 million. He always keeps a million in the bank.”

Burton began the year with $724,000 in his war chest.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Souder (R) has attracted some interest because he only won his 3rd district seat by 8 points in 2006 after surpassing 60 percent of the vote in his four previous elections. Still, the Fort Wayne-based district gave Bush 68 percent of the vote in the previous White House election, suggesting that the seven-term incumbent should be safe.