Carson’s Struggle Won’t End Tonight

Posted March 10, 2008 at 6:34pm

This isn’t your grandmother’s special election.

In today’s contest to fill the spot vacated by the late Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.), the Congresswoman’s grandson and protégé, Indianapolis City-County Councilor André Carson (D), and state Rep. Jon Elrod (R) are fighting in a race that many local political observers are describing as hard to predict.

While the district traditionally has voted for Democrats, Republicans have made recent gains in the area, including taking the Indianapolis mayor’s office from a two-term Democratic incumbent in November. What’s more, today’s special election likely will feature low turnout in Indianapolis and its suburbs because it is the only race on the ballot.

At least one Democratic operative in the state expressed concern that Carson’s campaign went negative with a television advertisement in the waning days of the campaign — before Elrod even was on the airwaves.

“If he doesn’t have seniors and the African-American base come out, he’s going to get his ass kicked,” said the operative.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is sufficiently concerned that it has put at least $257,000 in independent expenditures into the race on Carson’s behalf and lent staff to the campaign headquarters in Indianapolis. Carson also has tried to capitalize on support from elected Indiana Democrats, including featuring popular Sen. Evan Bayh in one of his television ads.

Even if Carson wins today, his hold on the seat could be tenuous, because three well-known Democrats are waiting in the wings to take on Carson for a full term in the May 6 primary. Former state Health Commissioner Woody Myers, state Rep. David Orentlicher, state Rep. Carolene Mays and Carson have filed for the primary, the winner of which will likely face Elrod in the November general election.

“You’ve got four people kind-of and kind-of-not on the sidelines hoping he loses,” said the Democratic operative. “I believe that if André wins [Tuesday], he will win the May primary. If he loses [Tuesday], it’s going to be a fight to the end.”

Carson expressed confidence in his chances Monday because he said that he, like his late grandmother, is close to the voters.

“I think she and I share a passion for people — we share a passion for people’s concerns,” Carson said. “We share a passion for those voters who normally wouldn’t have a voice under a different representative.”

Carson had raised $532,300 through early March, not including the $257,000 in independent expenditures from the DCCC.

Elrod said he was surprised by the DCCC’s decision to play in the race, including putting Carson’s campaign into its “Red to Blue” program.

“The investment in this race is more than we expected,” Elrod said. “Although it’s always interesting to see a blue district put in their Red to Blue category.”

Though his campaign showed comparatively lackluster fundraising, Elrod said his internal polling showed an almost even race. After raising around $113,100 though March 6, the campaign put one television advertisement on the air — a negative ad charging Carson with running a negative “Washington-style” campaign.

If Carson wins tonight, national Democrats are likely to support him in the May primary, despite the presence of three well-qualified candidates. But if Carson were to lose today’s contest, the path to victory might be easier for Mays, Orentlicher or Myers, who would then not have to face Carson as an incumbent.

The other Democrats, however, said they were not focusing on the special election and instead were looking to hit the ground running starting Wednesday morning.

“I think that if André wins tomorrow, I think that it’s fine and it’s fitting that he serves out his grandmother’s term,” Mays said.

But this isn’t the first time at least three of those Democrats have faced off. Carson, Mays and Orentlicher participated in the special Democratic caucus in early January, a contest that gave Carson the Democratic nomination for today’s special election.

What’s more, all of the Democrats have donated to the late Congresswoman’s campaigns. Mays said she’s donated about $1,000 over the years, though online fundraising records did not show that record. Orentlicher had given more than $4,100 to Carson according to federal election records.

But that’s just pocket change compared with the almost $9,000 that Myers, who is by far the wealthiest candidate in the race, gave to the late Congresswoman’s campaigns. Myers said he was still unsure just how much he was willing to put into his own campaign, in addition to the $109,000 he said he’s raised since he got into the race in early February.

“Do I have a fixed number in mind as to what I’m going to put in?” Myers mused. “The answer is no, not yet. But I can absolutely tell you that we are going to put our own funds into the race.”

A spokesman for Orentlicher’s campaign, Chad Chitwood, said he had about $170,000 in cash on hand at the end of December. Chitwood, a former press aide for the late Congresswoman, said Orentlicher’s campaign is looking toward May, not today.

“These things are never decided until they’re decided,” said Chitwood. “We’d never want to give any kind of a prediction on what’s going to happen.”