The 2006 midterm elections were ahead and Rahm Emanuel was thinking big. George W. Bush’s approval ratings were in the basement, the Republican Party’s image was in tatters, and the electorate had turned sharply against the war in Iraq. In that climate, it would have been easy for Democrats to gain congressional seats by picking such low-hanging fruit as Republican-held districts in the Northeast. Emanuel, then the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, asked himself, “Why stop there?”
By that point, the GOP was unpopular enough that it was possible to dislodge Republican incumbents in the Midwest, the Interior West, and even the South. But to win in America’s heartland, Emanuel needed candidates who were able to campaign against Republican failures without carrying the Democratic Party’s liberal baggage. He needed Democrats who could run against Bush’s war, spending, and incompetence without representing what another heartland Democrat famously called the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.”
In short, Emanuel needed Democratic candidates like Brad Ellsworth. Ellsworth, a career law enforcement officer, was the sheriff of Vanderburgh County in Indiana. He had no legislative record and had never taken public positions on most controversial national issues. Ellsworth was so popular that he ran unopposed in his last race for sheriff. So he became one of Rahm’s recruits, announcing a congressional run before the end of 2005.
Ellsworth was running in Indiana’s Eighth Congressional District, which tends to vote Republican in presidential elections and for Democrats in down-ballot races. At the congressional level, it has been so competitive that political handicappers have dubbed it “the Bloody Eighth.” It frequently flipped back and forth between the parties, until Democrat Frank McCloskey and Republican John Hostettler each held it for six terms apiece.
Hostettler was Ellsworth’s target. The Republican eschewed contributions from political action committees and thus frequently struggled to raise money. To win reelection in a tough district, he relied on a volunteer army of conservative Christians and support from the House Republicans’ congressional campaign committee. But in 2006, the national party’s resources were spread thin and the activist conservative base was dispirited. “When we went back to the district to work the phone banks, there was hardly anybody there this time,” a Hostettler supporter recalls.
On the issues, Ellsworth didn’t do much to distinguish himself from his opponent. He campaigned as a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, anti-illegal immigration Democrat. Ellsworth didn’t even make much hay on the war — in fact, he ended up closer to the Republican line than his opponent. To the extent that Ellsworth’s ambiguous position could be discerned, he was on balance for the war; Hostettler had been one of only six House Republicans to vote against invading Iraq.
Ellsworth raised $1.7 million to Hostettler’s $600,000. While the race was initially rated a toss-up, Ellsworth jumped out to a big lead in the polls. On election night, Ellsworth’s victory was the first Democratic pickup called by the national networks (there were 29 more to come). Ellsworth beat Hostettler 61 percent to 39 percent, the biggest margin by which any incumbent was defeated in 2006. Ellsworth was easily reelected in 2008, as Barack Obama narrowly carried Indiana.
Indiana Democrats are hoping to go back to this well again in 2010. Sen. Evan Bayh retired too late for any Democrats to qualify for the primary ballot, so the state Democratic central committee will get to choose his replacement for November. Not having to worry about a liberal primary electorate, the party bosses are leaning heavily toward Ellsworth, who will once again portray himself as a conservative Democrat. At this writing, the choice of Ellsworth hasn’t been ratified. But the only other viable Democrat in the mix, Ellsworth’s fellow congressman Baron Hill, has withdrawn from consideration. “Brad Ellsworth is a Democrat who fits the Hoosier model,” says one Indiana Republican insider.
What a difference four years makes. The political climate today little resembles the one that elected Ellsworth in 2006 and 2008. Bayh’s retirement suggests that not even he — the incumbent senator reelected with 62 percent of the vote in 2004 even as George W. Bush was beating John Kerry statewide — felt entirely comfortable with his chances. Both Democratic and Republican-leaning polls show Ellsworth is no shoo-in.
A Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll taken in March shows Ellsworth trailing former Sen. Dan Coats, the presumed Republican front-runner, by one point and taking just 36 percent of the vote. Another Republican in the race is none other than John Hostettler. But Ellsworth doesn’t fare very well in the rematch — he actually trails Hostettler by six points, 40 percent to 34 percent. Indiana is trending back in a Republican direction and the race will be competitive even without marquee names like Mike Pence or Mitch Daniels.
An earlier Rasmussen poll, assuming turnout that looks very different from the Daily Kos survey, contains even worse news for Ellsworth. Rasmussen showed Ellsworth losing to Coats by 14 points and to Hostettler by an eye-popping 19. A third candidate, state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, led Ellsworth by 10. In no matchup did Ellsworth get more than 32 percent of the vote. Against Hostettler, he drew just 27 percent.
IN 2006, ELLSWORTH COULD RUN against Bush. This year, Republicans will be running against Obama. In Indiana, only 44 percent of voters approve of the president’s job performance while 54 percent disapprove. Even Daily Kos/Research 2000 finds Obama’s favorability among Hoosiers a net negative. Another poll showed 60 percent of Indiana voters opposing the health care bill that is the centerpiece of the Democratic agenda.
But it’s not just the political climate that could hurt Ellsworth. This time, he has a voting record to run on — and against. “He’s not going to get a pass running in a statewide race,” says an Indiana Republican who is backing Coats. “He will be scrutinized by the Republican-leaning newspapers.” Hostettler says of his 2006 rival, “Someone that ran as someone that was not very liberal in 2006 has a very different record that he gets to run on this time.”
Ellsworth voted for the $787 billion stimulus package that began the Obama-Pelosi-Reid spending spree. But he was against the stimulus before he was for it — he actually voted against the original House-passed version, claiming “there were far too many provisions that would provide little to no economic stimulus.” Then he took a ride on Air Force One with the president, who was able to bring him into line. After the conference report, Ellsworth voted for the final version of the bill.
“I think any economist will tell you, if you spend money, it will create jobs,” Ellsworth told the Evansville Courier & Press. He parroted Obama’s line that the stimulus would create 3.5 million jobs and predicted that it would “save or create” 75,000 jobs in Indiana. The state’s unemployment rate jumped from 9.4 percent when the bill passed in February 2009 to 9.9 percent in December.
Ellsworth campaigned in 2008 as an opponent of a federal government takeover of health care. According to an Indiana newspaper, Ellsworth said the government could not afford to create a new health care program and that “decisions on health care must remain between a patient and doctor” rather than bureaucrats. He told local reporters that small business owners should be allowed to pool their resources to provide health insurance coverage.
Yet when Republicans introduced an amendment to allow small businesses to do so through association health plans, Ellsworth voted against it. He also voted against allowing consumers to purchase health insurance across state lines. In the end, he voted for the $1.2 trillion House-passed health care bill that created a government-run public option. Despite his earlier opposition, Ellsworth began backsliding on the public option, saying he could support it if assured it would “add not one penny” to the federal deficit.
“This Blue Dog won’t hunt,” one Republican strategist predicts. But Ellsworth has cast some conservative votes. He was one of 44 House Democrats to buck their party leadership on cap and trade, though the bill passed anyway thanks in part to the support of eight Republicans. He voted for the Stupak-Pitts amendment, which imposes a strong prohibition on taxpayer funding of abortion through a national health care bill, and suggests he might not be able to vote for the Senate version because of its weaker abortion language. Ellsworth has remained opposed to amnesty for illegal immigrants and has even sponsored some immigration enforcement measures, such as E-Verify.
Brad Ellsworth’s Senate candidacy will be an important test: Does Rahm Emanuel’s strategy for turning red states blue still work in 2010 — or has Rahm’s boss turned those states red again?