Name ID could decide crowded primaries for open Indiana seats

Coronavirus has upended traditional campaigning in races to replace Brooks and Visclosky

Fifteen Republicans and five Democrats are vying for retiring Indiana Rep. Susan W. Brooks’ seat in the June 2 primary.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Fifteen Republicans and five Democrats are vying for retiring Indiana Rep. Susan W. Brooks’ seat in the June 2 primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 26, 2020 at 5:06pm

With a global pandemic gobbling up news coverage and traditional campaigning replaced with debates and virtual events conducted over Zoom, next Tuesday’s primaries for two House races in Indiana could come down to which candidate has the most familiar name in districts where longtime incumbents are retiring.

Fifteen Republicans and five Democrats are duking it out for their parties’ nominations in Rep. Susan W. Brooks’ central Indiana district, which the Republican has held since 2013.

And 14 Democrats and six Republicans are battling in primaries to replace Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, a 35-year House veteran.

Neither seat is expected to flip, though Democrats are more bullish about their chances of taking Brooks’ 5th District seat, which includes the Indianapolis suburbs, than Republicans are about flipping Visclosky’s 1st District in northwest Indiana’s Chicago suburbs.

The Trump factor

Brooks ran and won as a moderate, but that was seven years ago. Now, the Republicans bidding to replace her have, for the most part, embraced the politics of President Donald Trump, all vying to show who is most loyal to him, said William Blomquist, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

The anti-tax Club for Growth, which has endorsed state Sen. Victoria Spartz, has been running two attack ads costing more than $400,000 bashing former Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi and political newcomer Beth Henderson for criticizing Trump.

“And they have to counter with ads saying, ‘I’m more Trump than anyone on the planet, no one has ever loved Donald Trump the way I have,’” Blomquist said.

Spartz, a businesswoman and state senator who had raised $842,000 as of May 13, including $750,000 from her own pocket, has a financial advantage. The Club for Growth on May 14 released a polling memo showing her leading with 32 percent, followed by Brizzi at 14 percent and Henderson at 13 percent.

Brizzi has name recognition, although it’s not necessarily positive. His law license was suspended for 30 days in 2017 after the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission found he had represented a client in a case in which he had a personal interest.

He raised $145,000 through May 13, including $80,000 from himself.

Henderson, the third candidate to run ads in the GOP primary, has raised $445,000, including $255,000 in loans from herself.

Her campaign too has not been without wrinkles. She irked Brooks by claiming that the congresswoman had recruited her to run. Brooks has stayed neutral in the race, and a spokeswoman told The Indianapolis Star that she has helped any candidate who asked for help.

Henderson also caught attention for a TV ad in which she discussed being born in the United States — an apparent swipe at Spartz, who was born in Ukraine and speaks with an accent.

An ‘almost invisible’ race

Indiana Treasurer Kelly Mitchell, initially thought to be the likely front-runner because of her statewide name recognition, has raised $335,0000 as of May 13.

But Mitchell, who might have thrived in a more traditional pancake breakfast, grip-and-grin campaign environment, has instead struggled, Blomquist said.

“The race is almost invisible except in television commercials,” with candidates forced to conduct much of their campaign, including debates, remotely, he said.

Democrats have been encouraged by the candidacy of former state Rep. Christina Hale, who had raised $1 million as of May 13. Blomquist marvels at the fact that there are five Democrats running because the party has traditionally struggled to recruit candidates in the district. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.

“It’s a long shot,” Blomquist said of Democrats’ odds. “But it’s a potentially winnable seat.”

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott could benefit from higher name ID in the Democratic primary for Indiana’s 1st District. (Courtesy McDermott for Congress)

Visclosky takes sides

In the 1st District, which includes Gary and all or parts of three counties in the northwest corner of the state near Chicago, the Democratic field includes a state representative, a suburban mayor, a township trustee and a handful of political newcomers. Six Republicans are in the race as well.
Visclosky has endorsed North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan, who is the son of state Sen. Frank Mrvan.

Mrvan isn’t the only well-known Democrat in the race: state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, 2018 secretary of state candidate Jim Harper, and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott are also running.

Reardon has the backing of the Seattle-based Voter Protection Project, which is spending at least $100,000 on mailers supporting her.

A Colorado-based group, Democratic Progress, meanwhile, has spent some $350,000 backing McDermott, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending.

McDermott has outraised his opponents, bringing in $590,000 as of May 13, including $50,000 of his own money. Lawyer Sabrina Haake raised $284,000, including $209,000 of her own money, while Reardon collected $256,000 including $40,000 of her own. Harper brought in $214,000, including $30,000 of his own money, while Mrvan raised $232,000, including $10,000 of his own.

Marie Eisenstein, an associate professor of political science at Indiana University Northwest, said that McDermott might have an advantage as mayor of one of the more populous cities in the region.

“I do think this is going to come down to essentially who has the most name recognition,” she said.

Inside Elections rates the general election Solid Democratic.