Hoosier House Up for Grabs

Indiana Democrats are going to have a hard time defending their slim state House majority this year. They hold the chamber by the narrowest of ...
by | September 15, 2008

Indiana_house_2 Indiana Democrats are going to have a hard time defending their slim state House majority this year. They hold the chamber by the narrowest of margins -- 51-49 -- and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels has opened up a big lead in his reelection campaign.

What's more, retirements in some conservative districts are likely to translate into Democratic losses. But Democrats have some pickup opportunities as well. When it comes to calling a chamber that has switched hands in each of the last two cycles, no one is willing to wager that either party will gain a certain and convincing margin.

On the macro level, Democrats are hoping that major voter registration and outreach efforts by Barack Obama's presidential campaign -- he has 31 field offices open in the state -- will help turn out voters and help offset Daniels' momentum.

But there seems to be no overarching theme in Indiana politics this year, aside from the economy. Passage of a property tax relief package crafted by Daniels has helped both the governor and his party. That stands in contrast to 2006, when Daniels' unpopularity and issues such as the leasing of the northern Toll Road and the switch to daylight savings time helped Democrats not only take the state House, but a majority in Indiana's U.S. House delegation, as well.

Even then, says Brian Howey, editor of an Indiana political newsletter, Democrats were unable to press their advantage fully. Their failure to build up a bigger majority impedes their efforts this year.

"All politics is local," says Robert Dion, a University of Evansville political scientist, coining a phrase. "If I had to bet, I would expect it would be more a function of local name recognition or local popularity, and that's where it all gets scrambled."

Republicans are optimistic about their chances to pick up seats in the southern part of the state. Dion predicts that Democrats will have a hard time holding on to the southwestern 63rd District, where Rep. Dave Crooks is stepping down after a dozen years. Republican Mark Messmer has won the endorsement of conservative groups such as Indiana Right to Life in his race against DuBois County Commissioner John Burger.

Further to the north, the GOP also likes its chances in West Lafayette's 26th District, where Joe Micon is retiring. Republican Randy Truitt, a member of the city council, is facing Democrat John Polles.

But Democrats have their eyes on two or three seats in Marion County, where they believe Obama's get out the vote efforts in Indianapolis could be particularly helpful. State Rep. Jon Elrod, who won the seat by 8 votes last time around, got back in this year's race late, after dropping a congressional bid. He faces a tough challenge against Democrat Mary Ann Sullivan in a district where increased African American turnout could make all the difference.

In another Indy seat affected by congressional ambitions, GOP Rep. David Orentlicher has left the 86th District open after his unsuccessful run for Congress this year.

There are a few other competitive races in Indiana this year -- but only a few. Most observers believe that the House could fall either way and that neither party will win a majority large enough to keep the chamber from being competitive once again in 2010. "It will be very close," predicts Ed Feigenbaum, editor of another political insider newsletter. "There probably won't be a net change of more than two or at the absolute most three seats in the final mix."

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