After Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) announced he would not run for Senate in 2010, the conventional wisdom took hold: in a big blow to Republican recruitment efforts, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) was now safe. As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post put it, “With Pence out, national Republicans acknowledge they have no obvious second choice to put the swing state of Indiana in play — making Bayh a solid favorite to win a third term.”
The numbers suggest otherwise. According to a Rasmussen poll released on Monday, Pence led Bayh 47 percent to 44 percent, a three-point advantage. Former Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) trailed Bayh by three points, 44 percent to 41 percent. Not only is Bayh’s lead in the latter match-up not insurmountable — when you factor in the margin of error, the race remains as competitive with Hostettler as the nominee.
A third candidate, GOP state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, trails the incumbent by 12 points. Bayh failed to reach 50 percent against any of the Republicans tested, winning no more than 45 percent of the vote in any hypothetical contest. Indiana remains anything but a cakewalk for the Democrats in 2010.
Hostettler was the first well-known Republican to enter the race. But after Scott Brown’s stunning upset victory in the special election to succeed Ted Kennedy, Republican recruiters began to look anew at all Democratic incumbents up for re-election this fall. Ramesh Ponnuru argued shortly before Brown was elected, “If Scott Brown can come close in Massachusetts, or even win, isn’t it within the realm of possibility that Republicans could pick up a Senate seat in… Indiana?”
Conservatives began to pay new attention to a suggestion by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol that they draft Pence to challenge Bayh. Kristol concluded: “An articulate, conservative first-term Senator who had knocked off a ‘safe’ Democrat in a state Obama carried in 2008-that would be something…for Pence, for the GOP, and for conservatives nationwide.”
But Pence — who is already a leading national conservative well positioned to run for governor, a higher leadership position in a potential new Republican House majority, or even president without a risky Senate campaign against Bayh — decided to stay put. “After much prayer and deliberation, I have decided to remain in the House and to seek reelection to the 6th Congressional District in 2010,” Pence stated in a letter. “I am staying for two reasons. First because I have been given the responsibility to shape the Republican comeback as a member of the House Republican Leadership and, second, because I believe Republicans will win back the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010.”
“Mike’s future in the House is at this point very strong,” Hostettler, who served with Pence in the House, told TAS. “He is poised to be at least the next whip in any new Republican majority. Mike will be in a strong leadership position to further his goals in the House.”
While some conservatives were disappointed that Pence wasn’t running for Senate, others were pleased with his decision. “This is refreshing news to many conservatives who were fearful that Pence leaving the House would leave its leadership devoid of a truly conservative voice,” wrote Erick Erickson on RedState.com. Pence is the highest-ranked Republican in the House widely trusted by movement conservatives.
There are reasons the National Republican Senatorial Committee preferred Pence to Hostettler. Bayh was re-elected with 62 percent of the vote in 2004; Hostettler lost his House seat, drawing just 39 percent, in 2006. Hostettler’s independence from the party line makes him unpredictable — he was one of just six Republicans in the House to vote against authorizing the war in Iraq — and his refusal to take political action committee money frequently causes him to fare poorly at fundraising. Bayh is sitting on a $12.7 million war chest.
But Hostettler also was given little chance to win when he took out established Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey in 1994. Then a mechanical engineer with no political experience, Hostettler labeled McCloskey “Frank McClinton.” Although Republican at the presidential level, the district — nicknamed the “Bloody Eighth” for its competitive nature — frequently changed parties in the House. Hostettler nevertheless was able to hold on for six terms.
Some of the problems that have plagued Hostettler in the past may not be an issue this year. His Iraq war vote — perhaps an unspoken reason some Republican hawks were so interested in finding a different challenger for Bayh — could help his fundraising through Ron Paul-style “money bombs.” Hostettler’s campaign is already looking closely at Rand Paul’s surprisingly successful effort in Kentucky. And while Connecticut candidate Peter Schiff hasn’t fared as well in the polls, he has done well at raising money from like-minded donors.
Like the younger Paul but unlike Schiff, Hostettler has deep ties to the more mainstream parts of the conservative movement: politically active evangelicals, people concerned about illegal immigration, pro-lifers, gun-rights activists, taxpayers’ groups, and especially the tea party movement. And Hostettler’s biggest albatross in 2006 — George W. Bush — is gone. In his place is Barack Obama.
Hostettler hopes to make Obama Bayh’s albatross. “Bayh keeps pointing to this leftward drift in the Democratic Party,” Hostettler says. “He either doesn’t realize or hopes Hoosiers don’t realize that he has been part of that leftward drift. His votes for the bank bailouts, for the stimulus plan, for the incremental plan for the federal government to take over the nation’s health care system. Evan Bayh is a member of the vast left-wing conspiracy he pretends not to be a member of.”
In 2010, Hostettler’s independent conservatism might be an effective contrast with Bayh’s reliably Democratic voting record punctuated by convenient bouts of centrism. Republicans in Indiana and Washington didn’t get Mike Pence. But in the year of the angry independent, an uphill fight with John Hostettler isn’t necessarily a lost cause.