Rep. Burton Is So Vulnerable He Just Might Win

Crowd of Challengers May Dilute Opposition

Posted April 28, 2010 at 6:15pm

There is little doubt most Republican voters in Indiana’s 5th district will choose someone other than Rep. Dan Burton as their nominee in a crowded primary next Tuesday.

The only question is whether the anti-Burton vote will split among his six primary challengers — four of whom are running serious campaigns — and allow the 14-term Congressman to eke out an underwhelming victory in his rock-ribbed Republican district in and around Indianapolis.

With no public polling and only outdated private polling available — and no major differences between the candidates on policy issues — political analysts and strategists can’t predict the outcome with any confidence.

“It’d be fair to say it’s a very competitive primary. It’s hard to predict the winner,” said Tom John, the chairman of the Republican Party in Marion County, which has a sizable bloc of GOP primary voters in the 11-county district.

The consensus in Indiana GOP circles points to Luke Messer, a former state Representative and executive director of the Indiana GOP, as Burton’s most threatening challenger. He’s the best-funded of Burton’s opponents, with $527,000 in receipts through mid-April, and has backing from John and other GOP figures in the Indianapolis area.

Burton attracted the crowd of formidable rivals this year after showing himself to be surprisingly vulnerable in 2008. A relatively unknown county coroner held Burton to 52 percent in the GOP primary. Now, a horde of ambitious Republicans are hoping to capitalize on voters’ disgust with Washington. Their theme is simple: Burton has been in Congress too long.

“We’re all talking about the fact that if we’re going to solve some of our problems in this country and if we’re going to bring some real leadership to this seat, we’re going to have to make a change from a 28-year incumbent,” said Brose McVey, a businessman and former political operative who is seeking the seat. “That’s pretty universal.”

Messer, who at 41 is a generation younger than the 71-year-old Member, said: “The big point of emphasis from our campaign has really been that we’re the only candidate in the race that represents the next generation of conservative leadership, and Congressman Burton has been in Washington for 28 years. Most voters in our district believe that you can be there too long.”

Messer claims his campaign has gained momentum lately after it was revealed that a recent Burton television ad featured on-camera testimonials not from Indiana voters but from actors employed by an Ohio-based agency. Burton’s campaign downplayed the episode, but Messer said it was “one more example that the Congressman is out of touch with the district.”

The next-best-funded candidate is state Rep. Mike Murphy, a veteran legislator who says he helped create 2,000 jobs. At a press conference Tuesday, Murphy displayed a large golf scorecard that awarded Burton “bogeys” and “double bogeys” for his record — a reference to Burton having skipped some House votes to participate in a golf tournament.

“He’s a gadfly. He carries no influence within his caucus,” Murphy said. “It’s time to replace Dan Burton with someone who actually has a record of job creation, ethics reform, the elimination of taxes and responsiveness to the people of Indiana.”

But the Congressman has his backers, many of whom see Burton as something of a conservative culture warrior. They include Craig Dunn, the chairman of the Howard County GOP organization in Kokomo, who touted Burton’s strong constituent services operation, his work on veterans issues and his strong opposition to the priorities of the Obama administration and the Democratic-run Congress.

“I think Dan has been a tireless battler against the creeping socialism of [President Barack] Obama’s administration and the unholy partnership” of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Obama, Dunn said. “Somebody has got to do that daily battle.”

Burton has been touting his conservative credentials on television, radio and in the mail, including endorsements from the anti-abortion organization Indiana Right to Life and the National Rifle Association. He’s largely ignored his opponents.

“He’s maintained a positive campaign that is focused on the issues,” Burton campaign spokesman John Donnelly said. “Our opponents can’t attack us on the issues, and so they’ve resorted to these negative gimmicks where they’ve launched personal attacks against him in the last week.”

Burton also is getting outside help from the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based conservative group that’s airing about $150,000 in television ads.

The other major Republican candidates are John McGoff, Burton’s upstart rival in 2008, and Brose McVey, who lost a 2002 campaign in the adjacent Indianapolis-based 7th district.

McGoff’s second effort has often been overshadowed in the strong field, but his campaign insists there is a path to victory touting McGoff’s background in health care and military service.

“This time around, Dr. McGoff’s message is very simple,” McGoff campaign manager Lou Quinto said. “One, are you happy with what you have? If you are, vote for Congressman Burton. If you’re not, ask yourself, ‘Who’s ready on day one to take over as a Congressman and be effective?'”

McVey said he is refusing contributions from political action committees and is running on a platform that includes support for term limits and reforming entitlement programs.

McVey said he has a background in agriculture that will help him erode Burton’s strength in the district’s rural counties well north of Indianapolis. The rural counties saved Burton from defeat in the 2008 primary, though McVey said the Congressman won’t do as well there this time in part because of lingering double-digit unemployment.

Ann Adcook and Andy Lyons round out the GOP primary. They are expected to poll in the low single digits.