In a series of comments here at SSP, I’ve argued that the IN-03 congressional race is the sleeper race of the 2010 cycle. In this diary, I’ll expand on these comments and explain in detail why I think Democratic candidate Dr. Tom Hayhurst has a real shot at pulling the upset of 2010 here in Indiana.
Some caveats: no, I don’t expect Hayhurst to win; I’m arguing only that he has a legitimate shot and could win given the right (not entirely unrealistic) set of circumstances. Also, this diary isn’t intended as a critique of the SSP front-page team, which recently made the decision not to list IN-03 as a potential pickup on the Big Board. They have excellent reasons for their choice, and their fantastic writing and analysis is what keeps me coming back to SSP more than any other political site on the Net. Finally, though I live in another district in Indiana (IN-09), I’ve never been to IN-03, nor do I know Hayhurst, Souder, any of the other candidates, or anyone who lives in the district. Thus, my comments in this diary are based solely on my own analysis and on information I’ve gleaned from the Web.
IN-03 is a mostly rural district in the northeastern corner of the state. Its largest city is Fort Wayne. The district has a Cook PVI of R+14; McCain won it 56-43, but Bush won it in 2004 by a vastly larger 68-31. According to Cook, this is the 64th most Republican district in the country; among Democrats, only Chet Edwards, Walt Minnick, Bobby Bright, and Jim Matheson hold districts more Republican-leaning.
Nevertheless, the district has had a reasonably good electoral history for Democrats recently. In 2006, Hayhurst held Souder to a 54-46 margin. In 2008, 28-year-old attorney Michael Montagano performed less successfully against Souder, losing 55-40 (and getting outperformed by Obama in the district).
Obviously, it will take a perfect storm of events for Hayhurst to win this seat. A victory in a seat like this would require a combination of an impressive Democratic candidate who’s a perfect fit for the district, a very weak Republican candidate, a Democratic fundraising advantage in the race, a divisive Republican primary, and a favorable electoral climate. As I’ll argue, though, all but the last of these qualities exist in this race. If the political climate remains as GOP-friendly as is it now, Souder should eke out a win. If Democrats become more popular as a result of the health care bill and additional legislation, Hayhurst could pull the upset.
A Strong Democratic Candidate
Tom Hayhurst is a 67-year-old retired medical doctor and Democratic activist. He’s a good fit for the district: an avuncular medical professional who seems like he walked out of a 1950’s movie about small-town America. (He’s a better fit than, for instance, a young lawyer like Montagano, which is one of the reasons Montagano lost in 2008.) He’s an avowed centrist whose position on health care has evolved from opposing the House bill to arguing that he can make it more cost-effective in Congress. Additionally, Hayhurst is talking jobs and advocating strongly for the expansion of passenger rail in Indiana. He has wide name recognition throughout the district as a result of his previous congressional run.
A description of Hayhurst as a candidate can’t help but include his impressive showing in 2006: 46% of the vote, outperforming the district by six points without a shred of help from the DCCC or elsewhere. (Granted, DCCC spending didn’t seem to help Montagano in 2008.) All told, Hayhurst is about the best candidate Dems could field in this district.
A Weak Republican Incumbent
Coupled with Hayhurst’s strength is the weakness of Mark Souder, about the limpest noodle around in Indiana’s congressional delegation (which is saying something, since he’s got competition from Steve Buyer and Dan Burton). Souder’s known as a weak campaigner and fundraiser, isn’t well-liked by Republicans in his district, and is an all-around weak incumbent. Some typical criticisms of Souder: he cares more about fantasy sports than he does about his job; he broke a term limits pledge back in 2006; his campaigning skills are so weak that even Rothenberg thinks the NRCC should have cut him loose back in 2008. Clearly, this is not a guy who’s well-loved or particularly adept at keeping his seat. In 2008, with NRCC help, he was able to win convincingly against Montagano; but two years earlier, he couldn’t be bothered to campaign seriously against Hayhurst and almost lost the seat as a result.
A Democratic Fundraising Advantage
Wouldn’t it be nice if after just one fundraising quarter (the one that ended three months ago) Hayhurst had more cash-on-hand than Souder did? Incredibly enough, that’s exactly what happened. Thanks to anemic fundraising and an incredibly high burn rate, Souder ended up at the end of December with less cash-on-hand than Hayhurst.
Furthermore, this isn’t the first time Hayhurst has outraised Souder; he did the same thing for the entire 2006 campaign, padding the total with $200,000 of his own money (Souder’s numbers here). The evidence indicates that not only can Hayhurst keep pace with Souder, he can do so for the long haul.
A Bruising Republican Primary
Of course, this would be one thing if Souder could save all his cash for the general election. However, for the first time in eight years, Souder is facing a bruising three-way primary. His opponents are rich carpetbagging auto dealer Bob Thomas and former Dan Coats press secretary Phil Troyer, who’s the teabagger favorite. Troyer’s fundraising has been anemic so far, so the real battle at the moment is between Souder and and the deep-pocketed Thomas. Both candidates have ads up, and they’re bashing one another just as hard as they can. Here’s a sample:
A current radio ad for Souder’s re-election campaign even includes name-calling, referring to Thomas as ‘Big Bucks Bob Thomas’ and accuses him of spending “‘half-a-million (dollars) shopping for a seat in congress.” …
“When he says I’m trying to buy this seat, well the fact is, he’s already sold it… to special interests groups in Washington D.C.,” said Thomas.
As they say, ouch. Souder should be able to prevail against the split field, just as he did in 2002 against a primary challenge from the left. But Thomas is forcing him to drain his already anemic coffers, while Hayhurst continues to rack up more money. Additionally, Souder will limp into the general election considerably bloodied by the attacks of his competitors.
An Uncertain National Climate
This brings us to the final criterion required for a Hayhurst upset: a favorable national climate. Certainly this one isn’t looking likely at the moment. But the election’s still seven months away, and a lot of things can change in seven months.
The key takeaway: because of the national climate, Souder looks likely for reelection. However, if the climate shifts so that Democrats lose, say, fifteen seats rather than thirty, Hayhurst has a shot at pulling off the biggest upset of the cycle. This is definitely one race worth keeping an eye on.