STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're about to see the election of 2006 as it looks from one hotly contested state. Democrats want to capture Congress. Republicans want to keep their jobs, and some are struggling in the state we'll hear from next.
NPR National Correspondent Linda Wertheimer spent time with candidates in Indiana. And Linda, why there?
LINDA WERTHEIMER reporting:
Well, Indiana's one of the reddest states on the political map. They haven't voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1964. And right now, seven of Indiana's nine House members are Republicans and three of them - maybe four of them - are in a little bit of political hot water.
INSKEEP: And you went to one of the districts where a Republican is in trouble. This is southwestern Indiana. What's it like there?
WERTHEIMER: Well, it's just incredibly beautiful. It's rich, rich corn country. Every scrap of land is so thickly planted. We were in Gibson County. Turning down a road down to the farmhouse is like going to into a tunnel of corn it's so incredibly tall.
But, you know, even these prosperous farmers are upset. They're worried about the war. They're worried about healthcare, and they are really worried about fuel costs because it costs a fortune to take those great big corn pickers out of the barn and drive down the cornfield -thousands of dollars, literally, to keep moving big equipment across fields.
INSKEEP: The incumbent's John Hostettler. Do the Democrat's have a challenger?
WERTHEIMER: Sheriff Brad Ellsworth. He's running against the incumbent, John Hostettler. I went out with him one morning in Gibson County. He goes out every morning in his pickup. The first stop was in Owensville, in a little coffee shop. It's called - it says Hunt's Pizza on the front, but it's basically a place where people go for coffee.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
Ms. PAT WILDER (Employee, Hunt's Pizza): I think this is great. This never happens in Owensville.
Sheriff BRAD ELLSWORTH (Democratic Candidate, Indiana's 8th Congressional District): Do a lot of people eat pizza in the morning? I noticed...
Ms. WILDER: ...breakfast pizza, biscuits and gravy. Yeah. Mm hmm.
WERTHEIMER: That's Pat Wilder. She used to own this coffee shop. She still works there.
Sheriff ELLSWORTH: So you decided to get out, sell the business and just go to work.
Ms. WILDER: Yeah. It was time for a change.
Sheriff ELLSWORTH: There you go.
Ms. WILDER: And I enjoy it. I love it.
Sheriff ELLSWORTH: It's the same difference. That's why I'm running for Congress, because it's time for a change.
Ms. WILDER: Yeah. Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WILDER: That's what Tom and I were just talking about. It's time for a change.
WERTHEIMER: And that is the Democrat's theme in Indiana.
Billie(ph) and Kenny Shieb(ph) are retired. He coached at the local high school, but she speaks for the family.
Sheriff ELLSWORTH: What do you want out of your congressman, and what do you think the problems facing us up here in Owensville are?
Ms. BILLIE SHIEB (Owensville Resident): Well, medical. The insurance and the medicine's the main thing. When you get old and your insurance costs you a fortune and your medicine and everything. That's one of mine and his.
Sheriff ELLSWORTH: Obviously, the war is on everybody's minds, but I think the healthcare is certainly one of the biggest issues that we have to address and do it quickly.
WERTHEIMER: Billie Shieb's a Democrat who sometimes votes for Republicans, but not this year, she says. And she says her son-in-law -who's firmly in the GOP camp - is switching this time. These are the voters Brad Ellsworth needs to win.
He's a popular county sheriff in the neighboring county where Evansville is. Tall, handsome, outgoing - he's conservative on social issues, much like the 8th district which stretches up the western side of the state past Terre Haute.
The Democrats in Washington are excited about Ellsworth. They're already running ads attacking his opponent, calling incumbent Republican John Hostettler a big rubber stamp for the president - attacking him for voting against a higher minimum wage.
But Congressman Hostettler is not always on the president's team. As he told a group of physicians at an Evansville forum on healthcare, he voted against the president's biggest domestic initiative: drugs for seniors. He thought it cost too much.
Representative JOHN HOSTETTLER (Republican, Indiana): I did not support the prescription drug benefit for a variety of reasons, including this reason. With the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, you're going to see - you might could say - more competition for those dollars. And that will lead to a very difficult situation in the determining who gets what dollars.
WERTHEIMER: This is Hostettler's most serious challenge to date. In part because Ellsworth supports gun ownership and opposes abortion, so those issues are off the table.
The national Republicans are sufficiently concerned to launch their own independent attack ads against Brad Ellsworth.
(Soundbite of TV commercial)
Unidentified Woman: (In commercial clip) Can you imagine a suspected child rapist being captured in Vanderburgh County but then mistakenly released by Brad Ellsworth's sheriff's department? At the time, Sheriff Ellsworth - whose department released the suspect - was in Washington campaigning for Congress.
WERTHEIMER: That did happen. A man picked up on a warrant from a neighboring state was released when deputies called the wrong law enforcement agency and were told there was no outstanding warrant. The man was later caught again. It was a mistake, Ellsworth says. He thinks the voters will understand that. Ellsworth thinks what will matter is that voters have lost confidence in the Republicans in Congress.
Sheriff ELLSWORTH: When you're working harder to make the other side look bad and not accepting anything that they do, then the work stops. And when it stops work, that's where we start hurting as Middle America and some go in with a fresh attitude. He's already tainted.
WERTHEIMER: Sheriff Ellsworth is running slightly ahead in the polls. And somewhat more interesting, he's way ahead in fund raising. Hostettler doesn't raise much money. He depends on certain church organizations to get out his votes, Steve.
INSKEEP: We're talking to NPR's Linda Wertheimer. And Linda, I have to ask - Democrats feel good at this point in the summer, but do they really have a chance to gain seats in this very Republican state?
WERTHEIMER: Well, if you figure that three seats are in jeopardy, then maybe they win two of them - maybe they win one of them. But I think they are certainly going to win something in Indiana. It just depends upon whether a wave starts, you know, some kind of a prairie fire is burning by the time we get to November.
INSKEEP: We hear plenty about concern about the war. Are there local issues that figure in here as well?
WERTHEIMER: Well, that's one of the things that makes Indiana interesting. In the northern part of the state, people are very upset with Governor Mitch Daniels because of taking the state away from central time and into eastern time. They don't like that. He sold a toll road in northern Indiana to a foreign company. They don't like that, either.
INSKEEP: Are you saying that a change in the clock could affect control of Congress?
(Soundbite of laughter)
WERTHEIMER: Well, you know, it depends upon, of course, what happens in other states. But, yeah. I mean, this is a good example of local politics.
INSKEEP: Your reporting reminds me of one other factor. Republicans have been really strong in small towns in recent years. They're really strong in these so-called exurbs, these suburbs that pop up miles from any city. Do gas prices become a special problem for Republicans there?
WERTHEIMER: I think there's no question about it. In a state like Indiana, for example, people drive all over the place. People who work in Louisville live in Indiana. People who work in Cincinnati live in Indiana. The northern part of the state - you're driving all over the place in Indiana. I think that gas prices are a big concern - not just in the rural areas where they're a concern for farmers, but for commuters everywhere.
INSKEEP: NPR national correspondent Linda Wertheimer. Linda, thanks.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And you can get a state-by-state analysis and predictions on this fall's races by going to npr.org.
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