Teeing Up Dan Burton

Four Top-Tier Primary Challengers Circling

Posted March 9, 2009 at 6:39pm

There’s something about Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.).

The 14-term incumbent has attracted at least four primary challengers, all of whom are established political figures in the Hoosier State. The cadre of Republicans likely picked up a clue from last cycle, when Burton defeated former Marion County Coroner John McGoff by 7 points in the GOP primary — the closest race of his career.

Now McGoff, state Rep. Mike Murphy, former 7th district GOP nominee Brose McVey and former state GOP Chairman Luke Messer are planning bids against Burton. And according to Marion County Republican Party Chairman Tom John, all of the hopefuls would be top-tier candidates in any Hoosier State district.

“They’re all guys who have been around Indiana politics, some federal politics, for years,— John said. “Not what you typically see in challengers who face an incumbent.—

For starters, at least three of the Republicans have run for Congress before: In addition to McGoff, McVey gave then-Rep. Julia Carson (D) a run for her money in the 7th district in 2002, and Messer lost the open-seat GOP primary to Rep. Mike Pence in 2000.

Local Republicans say many of the candidates are getting into the race so that they can be the heir apparent when the Congressman retires and vacates the seat. Burton has been the subject of retirement rumors for the past few cycles but could also wait to step aside in 2012, when the state’s Congressional delegation is expected to lose a seat after reapportionment and redistricting.

At least one more GOP candidate is waiting in the wings if that’s the case this cycle: Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi has said he’ll run if Burton, 70, retires.

Burton spokesman John Donnelly said that although the Congressman has not made an official announcement about re-election, he has made it clear that he’ll run again in 2010. Donnelly said Burton has set a “pretty ambitious fundraising agenda,— including raising $400,000 by the end of March.

The National Republican Congressional Committee does not have a policy this cycle on picking sides in primaries, including Burton’s race, according to spokesman Ken Spain. However, because Burton is an incumbent, sources say NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) will likely cut him a personal check for his campaign.

Local operatives say it’s unlikely that there will be a four-way primary challenge for Burton by the time primary day rolls around. Either some of the candidates will drop out before then or one of them will eventually lead the pack in fundraising and momentum, forcing the others to the sidelines.

A poll of 300 likely GOP primary voters for Murphy’s campaign by Bellwether Research and Consulting showed 36 percent of respondents intended to vote to re-elect Burton, while 34 percent were looking elsewhere and 29 percent were unsure about the primary. The survey, taken Feb. 4-8, had a margin of error of 5.6 points.

According to Murphy’s poll, Burton had a 63 percent favorable and 28 percent unfavorable rating among GOP primary voters. The poll also showed the state lawmaker with a relatively high name ID — 52 percent in the 5th district, while no other candidate broke the 50 percent mark.

One Republican operative pointed out that if every primary challenger raises between $200,000 and $800,000, they will effectively drown out the anti-incumbent message and Burton will skate to victory in the primary. But the same operative cautioned that if some of the candidates have meager fundraising, while one candidate can raise significant funds, Burton could be in danger of losing his seat.

“The donor and political community is keenly aware of the fact that if you want to see change, you can’t have four candidates challenging— the incumbent, the GOP operative said.

Donnelly lamented that so many Republicans appear to be gunning for the seat when their resources could be used to try to help defeat Democrats in other parts of the state. In the 2006 cycle, Democrats picked up three GOP-held seats in Indiana and were unable to win any of them back last year.

“Instead of having this money go towards races where we could pick up [formerly] Republican seats, they’re diverting a lot of money to be spent on that already safe Republican— seat, he said.

Almost every challenger has met with Burton to talk about a bid. According to sources familiar with the meetings, most of the men have a congenial relationship with the Congressman except for McGoff, who waged a negative campaign in the 2008 primary. During that campaign, McGoff made a point of highlighting the fact that Burton had missed House votes in order to play in a celebrity golf tournament.

Murphy also said he met with the Congressman personally before announcing his bid for his seat.

“And I told him this campaign was not going to be about the past. It was going to be about the future,— Murphy said. “I don’t care who you play golf with or how many times you play golf. That’s not going to solve my constituents’ problems.—