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Indiana Election 2011 | Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations

Regardless of Outcome, 9th District Race Full of Storylines

The race for Indiana's 9th District seat could be a repeat of the four most recent elections, or, feature a GOP challenger new to the district-wide scene.

campaign signs

Photo: Daniel Robison/WFIU

A Mike Sodrel campaign worker tries to position his candidate's sign to stand out from the crowded field of GOP hopefuls.

Prior to the only debate between the four Republican candidates in Indiana’s 9th District primary, each exhibited a distinctly different tack, but three of them had the same aim — get someone on the ballot from the GOP not named Mike Sodrel.

Sodrel has run in each of the last four elections, winning just one two-year term in Washington in the process.  Sodrel, owner of a namesake trucking company, says he’s not running on the name recognition those elections have built for him, but rather on his accomplishments during his time on Capitol Hill.

“I’m running a campaign about what I did, not what I said I’m going to do. It’s a campaign about accomplishes, not promises,” Sodrel said.

But to listen to Orange County Deputy Prosecutor Todd Young, you might think he’s also running on Mike Sodrel’s record in Washington.

“Mike Sodrel went there once before, in 2005 and 2006. He was part of the excesses the Republican leadership was then part of. He spent all sorts of money we didn’t have on things we didn’t need. And the voters sent him home. And none of that has changed. That’s why he’s lost each subsequent time he’s run,” Young said.

Sodrel and Young have sparred for weeks, with Young attacking Sodrel’s record and Sodrel attacking Young for what he calls personal attacks.

But both candidates are too political for Rick Warren, an out of work engineer and everyman candidate who freely admits he has little money or name recognition on which to rely.  Still, Warren says if voters will listen to his policies, he can still factor in the race.

“In as much as, no, I don’t have the funds and the political backing. But it’s not go to do with the amount of political backing. And maybe I’m being naïve about this. It has to do with the people that vote. And they’re the ones that make that decision,” Warren said. “You can have 10,000 signs. You can have a million dollars. But if the people don’t vote for you, you’re not getting elected. It’s just a matter of getting my word out.”

The fourth candidate, Travis Hankins, has built a campaign on his right-to-life stance and has blanketed southern Indiana with yard signs.  Hankins declined an interview request from WFIU prior to the debate in North Vernon, but on his website lists among his top priorities abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and what he calls “devolution of the Department of Education.”

But whoever wins will likely have to face incumbent Baron Hill, a target of the national Tea Party movement, but a candidate political watchers expect to coast through the primaries.  Hill faces four Democratic challengers, but just one who has a campaign website — DuBois County Democratic Party Chairman John Bottorff

With Congress approaching historically low approval ratings, Hill admits Democrats, who are in the majority in both the House and Senate, could bear the brunt of voters’ frustration. Even though some metrics show new health insurance reforms are not popular with likely voters, Hill believes Democrats could actually earn votes from the effort.

“In today’s modern society, where people have access to television and the internet, they can see it all. And they don’t like it. And I don’t blame them. I don’t like it either,” Hill said. “Way too much partisanship. In the final analysis, people want us to get things done. We’ve got this done now. And I think there’s an element of people that say at least the Democrats are doing something.”

Hanover College Political Science Professor Bill Kubik says regardless of which Republican emerges from the primary, Hill will likely face a strong challenge for his seat.

“I think it’s probably 50/50 at this point. It’s a hard year to be a Democrat. I think it’s really going to come back to what do people in the district think of Obama,” Kubik said. “I think if you’re a Republican, you’re going to have wind behind your sails.”

In fact, those are almost the exact sentiments of Mike Sodrel, who says previous election climates in the district have tended to favor Democrats.

“Some people tend to forget that I was the first Republican in 40 years and second in 100 years in this district. And I’ve been running with the wind in my face the entire time,” Sodrel said.

With the possibility of a fifth installment of Sodrel versus Hill – a record for two Congressional opponents – Kubik says Ninth District voters could become apathetic toward the race, especially since Sodrel was beaten by nearly 20 points in 2008.

But if the race is tight, Kubik says, national organizations will likely pour millions of dollars into the election, resulting in a predictable spate of negative advertising.

“In terms of being somebody who studies American politics, I gotta tell ya this is just one of those bellwether districts. Wow. It’s so incredibly competitive. And it’s really become a bellwether of the country,” Kubik said.

With the health care vote now in the rear view mirror, President Obama will likely focus on international and military issues over the summer, Kubik says. If Obama can successfully reframe conversation about the Democratic Party following a tough year and a half, Kubik says Democratic losses may not be as bad as many analysts were expecting just a few weeks ago.