Parties Face Activist Unease in Indiana

Posted February 22, 2010 at 6:36pm

One week after Sen. Evan Bayh (D) shook Indiana political circles with his surprise retirement announcement, both parties are facing blowback from activists because of the way they maneuvered their preferred nominees into the race.

Rep. Brad Ellsworth became the overwhelming Democratic frontrunner when he confirmed on Friday that he is entering the Senate race, though some Democrats have grumbled about the candidate selection process and several have said they will also run or are considering doing so.

Meanwhile, the unusual timing of Bayh’s decision — just one day before a key candidate filing deadline — and the game of musical chairs that ensued has overshadowed some of the discord on the Republican side.

The five-candidate GOP field is led by former Sen. Dan Coats, who held the same seat from 1988 to 1998 and who was recruited into the race by national Republicans. But he isn’t necessarily guaranteed to win the primary, in part because some conservative activists are angry with what they see as pro-Coats meddling from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and other GOP organizations.

Former Rep. John Hostettler and state Sen. Marlin Stutzman are among the Republicans challenging Coats in the May 4 primary, and they’ve echoed Democratic criticism about Coats’ background as a lobbyist and his long absence from Indiana.

“Neither side has especially endeared themselves to the rank and file just yet,” said Robert Dion, a political scientist at the University of Evansville.

But Democrats are in a bigger bind. At a time when voters don’t think highly of politicians — not to mention the anti-establishment fervor in the political environment — the Democrats are facing criticism that “party bosses” and not voters will decide their nominee.

“At least the Republicans are going to have a primary,” Dion said. “The Democrats can’t even lay claim to that. Instead they’re going to have an anointing of some kind. That’s not the most auspicious way to begin a campaign, I think.”

The Democratic nomination will be decided by just 32 members of the State Central Committee. Democratic officials originally hoped to convene a committee meeting as soon as possible, but they have concluded the state election code precludes them from naming a nominee before the May 4 primary.

To assuage some Democratic activists’ concerns that the candidate selection process is top-heavy, party officials are weighing a plan to hold a series of candidate forums across the state.

In announcing his candidacy last week, Ellsworth touted his previous service as a county sheriff more than his three-year tenure in the House.

“The best years of my life are the more than two decades I spent in the local Sheriff’s department,” he said in a statement, adding that he would strive to be “an independent voice to help Indiana through these tough economic times, and get things done for everyday folks who are really struggling.”

Republicans already have sought to tarnish Ellsworth’s image as a centrist Democrat, in part by brandishing his votes for the final economic stimulus plan and for a $700 billion program to stabilize the financial markets.

Ellsworth shouldn’t have any trouble securing the Democratic nomination, though Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott and Darren Washington, an at-large member of the Gary Board of School Trustees, have said they will also ask the committee for consideration.

And on Monday, Rep. Baron Hill (D) said that he too was considering the Senate race.

“I’m open to the idea,” Hill said in Indiana, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. “It doesn’t mean that I’m going to do it.”

Hill had been on a weeklong military trip overseas that prevented him from commenting publicly before Monday. He had previously expressed interest in running for governor in 2012. It is also possible that Indiana’s other Senate seat will be open that year, when Sen. Dick Lugar (R) could choose to retire at age 80 instead of seek a seventh term.