Indiana’s crowded 8th Congressional District field will likely vie to ‘out-conservative’ each other

COMMENTARY: Indiana’s crowded 8th Congressional District field will likely vie to ‘out-conservative’ each other
Mark Bennett, (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star
Monday, February 12, 2024 5:08 PM

It truly doesn’t seem that long ago.

Cellphones existed. “The Simpsons” made us laugh. We had the internet.

The years from 2006 to 2008 had those things in common with 2024.

During that same span, a Democrat won Indiana’s 8th congressional district seat by margins of 61% and 65%. Former Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth became the first Democrat to represent Vigo County in the U.S. House of Representatives since former Gerstmeyer and Indiana State athlete Fred Wampler served a single term from 1958 to 1960. Voters overwhelmingly backed Ellsworth in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

The thought of such a circumstance happening in 2024 seems wildly improbable.

Nonetheless, in the wake of seven-term incumbent Republican Rep. Larry Bucshon’s surprising announcement last month that he’s not seeking reelection, a flood of candidates filed to run for his U.S. House seat, including four Democrats. The Democrat who wins the nomination in the May 7 Indiana primary will face an uphill battle in the general election against one of nine Republicans who filed to run before Friday’s noon deadline.

This isn’t a Brad Ellsworth moment. And this isn’t 2006 or 2008.

“That was an anomaly,” said Erin Covey, the U.S. House analyst for the Cook Political Report. “I would not see this district being competitive or becoming competitive for the next several cycles.”

The 8th District, she added, “is a safe Republican seat.”

Covey pointed to the continuing influence of Donald Trump as a prime indicator of Republican dominance. Voters in the 8th backed Trump over Hillary Clinton by 65% to 31% in his 2016 victory.

Sixty-five percent of 8th District voters backed Trump compared to 33% for Joe Biden in 2020, when Trump lost the presidency by 7 million votes nationwide.

Trump’s spell-like popularity continues in the 21 southwestern Indiana counties in the 8th, which sprawls from the Ohio River to Interstate 74 in Fountain County.

Even with the mild political diversity of the two largest cities — Evansville and Terre Haute — “the heart of the district is quite rural and quite red,” acknowledged Dave Crooks, the Indiana Democratic Party’s 8th District chairman. Still, he’s not conceding the 2024 race to the Republicans.

“I sense that we’ve got a shot,” said Crooks, a former six-term Indiana state representative who lost a 2012 challenge to Buschon in the 8th.

His optimism comes from his support of Boonville resident Ed Sein, one of the four Democrats seeking the party’s 8th District nomination this May. The other Democrats who’ve filed to run include Erik Hurt, Peter FH Priest II and Michael Talarzyk, according to Friday’s list of filings with the Indiana Secretary of State Office’s Election Division.

More than twice as many Republicans filed to replace Bucshon. The biggest surprise in that group came Thursday, when former 8th District Rep. John Hostettler filed to run.

Hostettler served five terms from 1995 through 2007. It was Hostettler who lost the 8th District seat to Ellsworth by a lopsided margin in November 2006. Four years later, Hostettler unsuccessfully ran for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senator.

Hostettler, as a former congressman, seemingly could have an edge. Covey said Hostettler’s 2002 vote against the U.S. invasion of Iraq — as one of only six Republicans to oppose that military intervention — could appeal to the current era of Republicans.

“It’s such a crowded primary, so it’s difficult to gauge,” Covey said, “but Hostettler should be a frontrunner for this seat. But in this sort of race, when the threshold for winning the primary is so low, anything can happen — a self-funder like Trey Hollingsworth could swoop in and win.” Hollingsworth, a wealthy Tennessee Republican, won Indiana’s 9th District seat in 2016 after a controversy over his residency, and he served three terms.

The other eight Republicans seeking this year’s 8th District GOP nomination include state Sen. Mark Messmer of Jasper, as well as Justin Case, Jeremy L. Heath, Dominick Jack Kavanaugh, Luke A. Misner, Richard Moss, Kristi Risk and Jon Schrock, according to the Secretary of State Office’s report.

“We’ll see who has the best organization, but I’d say right now it’s Messmer’s [race] to lose,” Crooks said.

Buschon isn’t endorsing any candidate and will leave that up to voters, he said Friday afternoon. But Bucshon is confident the winner will be a Republican and that the once “Bloody 8th” is now “blood red,” as he put it.

“It’s not surprising that a number of individuals have entered the race, given the opportunity to run in an open congressional seat doesn’t happen that often — especially in a district that has shifted politically over the past 14 years from a swing seat into a solidly Republican seat,” Bucshon said.

At the Cook Political Report, Covey foresees a competition in the primary among the Republicans to show the most connections to Trump and his stances.

“I think you can expect this to be a race where people try to out-conservative each other and align more solidly with Trump,” Covey said.

Ironically, the last Republican nominee to come up short in an 8th District race was Terre Haute’s Greg Goode, who lost to Ellsworth in 2008 — the same year Democratic former Illinois U.S. Sen. Barack Obama won the the presidency. Goode — now a state senator representing Vigo, Clay and Sullivan counties — sees much work to be done in Congress for whomever ultimately wins this year’s 8th District race.

“While I will not endorse any candidate, I appreciate each who has put her and his name on the ballot to serve,” Goode said Friday. “I stood for this Congressional office in 2008 and believed then as I do now America’s best days are ahead, but only if our elected officials tackle the issues of importance to the United States.

“Indiana is and must continue to be a leader for U.S. national and economic security, and the communities in the Indiana Eighth Congressional must be represented by a leader who embraces this vision,” Goode added. “As a Republican, I of course want to see the seat remain Republican. As an American, I expect our party’s nominee to balance conservative convictions with the need to find common ground across the political aisle and advance the national interests of America. That is how I approach my service at the Indiana Statehouse and how I will assess each of the candidates.”

Across-the-aisle service is definitely needed in Congress, but isn’t happening often, especially on the most consequential issues. Republicans and Democrats have moved farther from the political center — the turf of compromise and negotiation — since a closer alignment in the 1970s, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center report.

That divide gets calcified through straight-ticket voting in Indiana. The Hoosier state is one of only six that allow it. If the 8th District congressional race is to be remotely competitive this fall, Democrats will have to convince conservatives and independents to split their tickets, Crooks said.

“The only way we advance a Democrat candidate is people being open-minded and not voting straight-ticket,” Crooks said.

For now, analysts like Covey at the Cook Political Report don’t anticipate such a change here. The potentially competitive races, she said, could be in northwestern Indiana’s 1st District, where Democrat Rep. Frank Mrvan is the incumbent, and maybe in the 5th District, where Republican Victoria Spartz also is a vulnerable incumbent.

Otherwise, “we haven’t really seen any sign of movement that would make [the 8th] competitive,” Covey said.



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