In Indiana's Republican primary for U.S. Senate, conservative insurgents got more votes than the GOP establishment. There was only one small problem: the party establishment had just one candidate in the race while the conservatives split their votes between four.
Two of those candidates, Tea Party activists Don Bates and Richard Beheney, did little to help former Sen. Dan Coats get a crack at returning to Washington as a legislator rather than a lobbyist. But strong pockets of support for both state Sen. Marlin Stutzman and former Rep. John Hostettler allowed Coats to parlay a fairly lackluster showing into a primary victory.
A pollster for Gov. Mitch Daniels told Politico that Coats needed to win at least 55 percent of the vote to avoid embarrassment. With 99.2 percent of precincts reporting, the ex-senator failed to break 40 percent. But Coats still finished first, suggesting that it was perhaps an embarrassment of riches.
Conservatives failed to beat Coats, but it wasn't due to a lack of trying. In the waning days of the campaign, the Beltway right rallied behind Stutzman. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) endorsed him and helped him raise over $200,000. Other prominent conservative endorsements followed.
Prior to that, the little-known state senator had been treading water. With low name identification, Stutzman fared the worst of the three major candidates in head-to-head match-ups against likely Democratic nominee Brad Ellsworth (though he did manage to narrowly outpoll the Democrat). An early leaked poll obtained by an Indiana political blog showed Coats at 29 percent, Hostettler at 26 percent, and Stutzman at 18 percent.
The only public poll of the GOP primary electorate, conducted by Survey USA, showed Coats at 36 percent, Hostettler at 24 percent, and Stutzman lagging behind at 18 percent. Even the poll taken for DeMint's outfit, the Senate Conservatives Fund, found Stutzman stuck at 18 percent. But when the votes were counted last night, Stutzman zoomed to 29 percent and leapfrogged Hostettler for second place.
Hostettler remained a force to be reckoned with, however, as his grassroots army of conservative Christians still turned out. The former six-term congressman took nearly 23 percent of the vote. Stutzman was a fresh face, Hostettler a proven conservative. Together, they won a majority. Separately, neither was able to beat Coats.
Dan Coats is no liberal Republican himself. Yet since leaving Indiana he had grown comfortable with the ways of Washington, voting for the Brady bill and Ruth Bader Ginsburg because that was what was expected at the time. After leaving the Senate, Coats became a lobbyist for bailout recipients, tariff-increase beneficiaries, cap and trade, and a pharmaceutical industry that supported Barack Obama's health care plan.
Coats was a compassionate conservative, not a combative conservative. His conservative critics were unfocused in their combativeness. The National Rifle Association sent out anti-Coats mailings highlighting his votes against the Second Amendment, but signaled both Stutzman and Hostettler were suitable pro-gun votes. Indiana Right to Life was the only organization that got to vote five times in the primary, initially endorsing all of the Republican candidates.
Nobody doubted that Hostettler was a combative conservative, voting against big government even when it was served up by Republicans. Despite drawing large crowds, he was a characteristically poor fundraiser, unable to afford television airtime for his hard-hitting anti-Coats ads. A bigger Hostettler haul might have deterred Washington movement conservatives from getting into the race on behalf of Stutzman and allowed him to consolidate the conservative vote.
In the end, Hostettler might have proved too willing to buck the party line. His opposition to the Iraq war earned him Ron Paul's endorsement and a semi-successful Internet "money blitz" in April. It also made him the subject of an 11th-hour Stutzman campaign attack email alleging that Hostettler "is in agreement with Ron Paul's views of Israel and the Jews." The only evidence was a quotation from Hostettler's antiwar book that was itself actually a quote from another author.
Thus conservatives ended the primary fighting each other instead of the Republican establishment. They will now put aside their differences and unite behind Dan Coats, with his 90 percent American Conservative Union rating, against a Democrat who voted for the stimulus, the public option, and a health care reform measure that did not prohibit taxpayer funding of abortion.
But many of these conservatives will always wonder: Could they have won this primary if either Stutzman or Hostettler had a clean shot at the frontrunner? How might the race have been different if Washington had stayed out and let Hoosiers pick their own candidates?
No one will ever know.
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