With Republicans hoping for a comeback, one of this year's most closely watched Senate races will likely be in Indiana, which has an open seat after two-term Democrat Evan Bayh abruptly decided not to seek re-election to a Congress he called "dysfunctional."
Anti-Washington sentiment has been running high in the state, and the would-be senators seeking Bayh's seat are running with it. That's a challenge, considering the top three contenders combined have spent decades in Congress.
Indiana's Democrats were at first thrown for a loop by Bayh's unexpected withdrawal — he'd been considered a shoo-in for another term. But because Bayh called it quits so late, no other Democrat could register for next month's primary, and it was too late for Republicans to recruit a stronger contender for their side. So five Indiana Republicans are now spending their time and money trying to win the May 4 primary, while the Democratic nominee will be chosen instead by Democratic county chairs the week after the primary.
Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth, seen here in 2006, is hoping to be the man who replaces outgoing Democrat Evan Bayh in the U.S. Senate.
Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth, seen here in 2006, is hoping to be the man who replaces outgoing Democrat Evan Bayh in the U.S. Senate. Darron Cummings/AP
Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker, who is in charge of that selection, says the only person his party is even considering for the job is a second-term congressman from southwestern Indiana named Brad Ellsworth.
"Things have obviously fallen in line for Congressman Ellsworth, and part of it is because of how strong of a candidate he is," Parker said.
Ellsworth, on a recent visit to United Consulting, an Indianapolis public works engineering firm that's received a lot of work from the economic stimulus bill he voted for, faced repeated questions on the health care overhaul he also voted for.
"I was watching what he was doing, and I approved of the way he went about it," said Bill Hall, a vice president at the firm.
Hall said he was specifically watching how Ellsworth pushed for assurances that no funds in the health care bill would be spent on abortion.
"I wanted to see how that got worked out, and Brad's a Democrat, but I've always appreciated [that] on some of the moral issues, he's kind of in agreement with what I believe," Hall said.
Political scientist Brian Vargus of Indiana University-Purdue University says Ellsworth is, if anything, even more conservative than Bayh, who frequently votes against his own party. Ellsworth, Vargus said, is a true Indiana Democrat.
"You have to realize that Democrats in Indiana are would-be Republicans in most other states," Vargus said. "This is a very conservative state."
Later, while riding back to his party headquarters, Ellsworth said he is convinced that his vote for health care will only look increasingly better to voters in the Hoosier state.
"My board of directors is large and diverse, and they all don't get their information at the same place. That's my job," said Ellsworth, "to dissect all that, and then make the best decision I can. And I think I did."
Ellsworth plays down that he's a sitting congressman. Instead, his campaign Web site shows him leaning against a sheriff's patrol car, with a sheriff's badge in his campaign logo. Ellsworth says he's proud to point out he's the former sheriff of Vanderburgh County.
"I think it's a great segue to Washington, D.C., keeping those ideals, and I just want to remind myself of that, and I want people to know where I came from," he said. "I'm not a lifelong Washington politician."
Crowded GOP Field
When Ellsworth first ran for Congress four years ago, he beat six-term Republican John Hostettler. Now he and Hostettler are both seeking Bayh's Senate seat.
In Zionsville, an Indianapolis suburb where the houses are very big and the politics very conservative, about 50 people braved tornado warnings to attend a town hall with Hostettler. He described to this crowd of Tea Party sympathizers his decidedly unique record in Congress: voting against aid for Hurricane Katrina, opposing the Iraq invasion as an unjust war, and supporting any and all tax cuts.
When he invited questions, one woman said: "There's something to be said for experience in voting for a politician. And I think a lot of people view that as very important. But in today's climate, I'm not so sure."
Hostettler sought to reassure her.
Daniel R. Patmore/AP
Republican John Hostettler, seen here in 2006, is hoping to win his party's nomination and reclaim Indiana's Senate seat for the GOP.
Republican John Hostettler, seen here in 2006, is hoping to win his party's nomination and reclaim Indiana's Senate seat for the GOP. Daniel R. Patmore/AP
"With me, you have a known entity, with a record," he said. "With a record that has upheld constitutional principles for 12 years."
Later, Hostettler shrugged when asked if he missed Washington.
"There were a lot of things about Washington that were not necessarily attractive and continue to be not necessarily attractive to me, but the simple fact of the matter is, it's a work that has to be done," he said.
For now, Hostettler is aiming his fire mainly at the Republican thought most likely to win the GOP primary: former U.S. Sen. Dan Coats. A video on Hostettler's Web site questions Coats' conservative credentials.
It goes on to denounce Coats for voting to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and for voting to ban semiautomatic weapons. Coats rejects that criticism and insists he's the kind of conservative Hoosiers want.
"I hope I've earned the respect and trust of Hoosiers," he said. "They've seen me, they know me, they've seen my ... consistent conservative record. I'm trusting that they will trust me to carry their voice to Indiana because I'm a known quantity."
But what's also known about Coats is that he told a group in North Carolina a year and a half ago that he and his wife, who were living in Virginia while he worked in Washington as a lobbyist, planned to move to North Carolina. An ad run by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee replays that footage of Coats.
Coats now says he has no plans to move to North Carolina.
"I did mention once that, you know, it's a desirable place, and perhaps at some point in life we might ... want to consider retiring down there. But I'm a long way from retirement, No. 1," he said. "No. 2, I'm back here in Indiana and here to stay."
Late last week, all five Republicans running in next month's Senate primary gathered for their first broadcast debate.
Denise McAtee of Indianapolis stayed for the whole debate, and afterward, she said Coats had failed to win her vote.
Former U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, a Republican, hopes to reclaim his old U.S. Senate seat.
Former U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, a Republican, hopes to reclaim his old U.S. Senate seat. Tom Strickland/AP
"I believe he's been away so long it will be hard for him to connect with the people in Indiana again," she said.
But others seemed impressed by the 10 years Coats spent as the senator who replaced Dan Quayle. Lawyer Grace Jean Myer was one of them.
"I'm getting the impression he could deal with Capitol Hill, and he could work both against and with the politics there," she said.
In the end, says Vargus, the political scientist, the race for the open Senate seat in Indiana may come down to one crucial unknown factor.
"Is the anti-Washington sentiment going to be so strong that they're just going to say, 'Well, OK, I'm going to vote for a Republican, I don't care who it is?' "
In a little less than seven months, we should know the answer.