Back in January, the Eighth District congressional race looked like politics as usual, with a likely incumbent victory. But in February, Senator Evan Bayh’s sudden retirement announcement opened a seat in the Senate—and one in the House. One outcome is a crowded Republican primary field, filled with political newcomers who hope the open race will give them a chance at the House seat.
This congressional race is defined by Evan Bayh’s surprise decision to retire from the Senate. Before that, five Republicans had lined up to challenge two-term incumbent Representative Brad Ellsworth. But then Ellsworth set his sights on the open Senate seat, and suddenly, what was supposed to be an orderly race ending with a Democratic victory became an open race leaning Republican.
State Representative Trent Van Haaften is now the lone Democrat running for Congress in the Eighth District, so there won’t be a party primary. But Republicans are also facing some challenges, says Brian Posler, a political scientist at the University of Southern Indiana. He says Bayh’s announcement came so close to the candidate filing deadline, it didn’t give more experienced potential candidates, like former mayors or city council members, enough time to take advantage of the open seat.
“You tend to see those sorts of folks time their jump into a higher office when there’s an open seat — and I don’t know who that might have been for the Republicans — but it just doesn’t seem that we have that many of that sort of candidate in this crowded Republican field,” Posler says.
Instead, five of the eight candidates are making a first-ever run for public office, and they’re tapping into a populist ‘Congress is dysfunctional’ sentiment—the reason Senator Bayh cited for his retirement. Most of the candidates, including Kristi Risk, a stay-at-home mom from Owen County, were at a well-attended Tea Party Express stop in Evansville in early April.
“We were probably the first campaigners in this Eighth District race that started running under the constitutional banner, and now everybody has kind of jumped onto that,” Risk says. “But that is exactly why I’m running for office. My main platform is to bring government back under its constitutional authority.”
Risk is running a close race with John Lee Smith, a financial adviser who has held office in Monroe County and has mounted two previous congressional campaigns. Brian Posler says voters in the Republican primary have some careful calculating to do at the polls: which of the candidates can offer broad appeal in the November general election?
“All the folks that want to ‘throw the bums out,’ they have to field candidates who have the option of doing that, right?” Posler says. “So they have to be people who are credible enough, experienced enough, quality enough challengers that they really can have a chance at taking the seat.”
Area Republican party leaders are calling Warrick County heart surgeon Larry Bucshon the front-runner. But that puts Bucshon at a disadvantage with some local Tea Party activists, who say the strong local and national GOP support he’s received makes him too mainstream. It’s Bucshon’s first run for public office, but he got into the race early and has raised nearly $250,000 — more than any other candidate, Republican or Democrat. Nick Hermann, from Vanderburgh County, is one of several GOP chairmen in the district to endorse Bucshon. He says the open race and large candidate field benefits the party.
“There’s a lot of people that’s interested and wanting to get involved, so I think it’s going to be a much higher than usual turnout for an off election year like this, because all of a sudden, nationally they’re viewing both of those races as a pick-up,” Hermann says.
But if voter turnout is low — as mid-term elections tend to be — USI’s Posler says every vote counts that much more, creating conditions where an upset can occur. For any candidate, the Eighth is a challenging district, ranging from urban to rural, extending from the Ohio River almost halfway up the state. Representative Ellsworth won all 18 counties in 2008, and Posler says the successful candidate has to build broad support across the district. That takes time and money, and only a few of the eight Republican contenders have much of either.