Out of nowhere, a well-known Republican has emerged to take on Evan Bayh: former Rep. John Hostettler just announced he would challenge the Indiana Senator.
Counting North Dakota and Wisconsin, where the NRSC is still hoping to recruit a top-tier challenger, the GOP has been eying 11 Senate seats next year. Indiana was not one of them. As such, Hostettler’s entry introduces yet another race on our radar screen, and it will enthuse Republicans who think that next year’s environment will be so toxic for Democrats that most of their credible candidates will waltz into office.
Yet, neither does Bayh look vulnerable nor does Hostettler look formidable, which means that the latter’s entry is certainly not enough for the senator to suddenly vault on the list of vulnerable incumbents. Hostettler’s entry might mean Indiana will be well-worth watching, but it certainly won’t cause any headaches in DSCC headquraters.
A former Governor, Bayh has held statewide office since 1984 and he has received more than 60% in each of his first two Senate runs and his last name is as famous as it gets in Indiana politics; he also has a gigantic cash-on-hand total ($13 million), partly because he was preparing for a presidential race in 2008. But Hostettler has always been a poor campaigner with no ability to entrench himself in a district (IN-8) that should have been favorable to Republicans. After being carried by the 1994 red wave, he always struggled to win re-election: He received 50% in 1996, 52% in 1998, 53% in 2000, 51% in 2002 and 53% in 2004 - massively underperforming the George W. Bush’s 62%.
And in 2006, Hostettler was crushed by Brad Ellsworth 61% to 39% - the biggest loss any incumbent Republican suffered that year. In short, his political skills won’t strike fear in Democratic hearts; and his ability to repulse Republican voters - even in years that were overall favorable to his party won’t inspire GOP confidence.
Hostettler was long the bane of the NRCC’s existence, so it’s unlikely the NRSC will do that much to help him: As a congressman, he did not engage in fundraising (which meant that the NRCC often had to spend a lot of money to save him) and he gave the reigns of his re-election campaigns to family members. Add to that the fact that Hostettler often took unorthodox positions (he was one of only 6 Republicans to vote against the Iraq War), and the Republican establishment won’t rush to welcome him in the race.
The NRSC could even choose to work to ensure the nomination goes to Marlin Stutzman, a 32-year old state Senator who is already in the race; Stutzman might not have Hostettler’s national profile, but the NRSC might decide that he would have a better shot at an upset.
All of this said, Hostettler has one asset that could assure him a path at a general election victory if (and only if) next fall’s landscape is very ugly for Democrats: Known as a staunch social and fiscal conservative and a hard-liner on immigration issues, Hostettler is exactly the type of candidate Tea Partiers dream about. That could mean attracting activist support, receiving more contributions than he dreamed of while in the House and ensuring heavy conservative turnout next November.
But Hostettler certainly needs the environment to deteriorate so much as to make 2008’s anti-Republican landscape look like child’s play. Senators like Lincoln and Reid have always been known to have weak standing among their state’s independents, but for Indianans to turn against Bayh to require Barack Obama’s approval rating to sink to depths he is very far from.
The most likely scenario is that Indiana’s race unfolds along the same lines as Maine, Texas and Kansas’s did last year: Democrats were hoping that national trends would override Collins, Cornyn and Roberts’s standing and they recruited credible candidates (especially in Maine). All three races were somewhat more interesting than they might have been in other cycles, but none ever grew that tight. Heading into 2010, we’ll make sure to keep an eye on Indiana but Hostettler faces an uphill climb just to making Bayh sweat it.
And yet, Bayh might choose to artificially raise the stakes of the 2010 battle: That would allow him to invoke his vulnerability to increase his leverage in the Senate and to justify his holding-out and his filibuster threats. Given that the senator has already been one of the Democrats least willing to cooperate with the leadership’s agenda (he was one of only two to vote against the budget, he is one of only 5 who has raised the possibility of opposing cloture on the health-care bill), that could make 2010 even tougher for Reid to navigate.