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Possible Hill-Sodrel IV likely to be like first three matchups — extremely tight

April 02, 2008
Ninth District Congressman Baron Hill faces three challengers this spring, but the Seymour Democrat is expected to get his party's nomination, setting up a fourth showdown with New Albany's Mike Sodrel, who is unopposed in the Republican Primary.

The score heading into November is Hill 2, Sodrel 1, with Hill, then a two-term incumbent defeating Sodrel in 2002, but losing in 2004 before recapturing the seat in 2006.

Each of those races was decided by five percentage points or less, and local chairs of both parties don't expect a potential fourth race to be any different.

Illustration by Alisha Sonner
"I think this will be a very close race," Crawford County GOP Chair Daniel Crecelius said.

Terry Stroud, who chairs the Democratic Party in Crawford County, said that while it may be close, he doesn't think the outcome will be any different from two years ago for Sodrel, as well as longtime Congresswoman Anne Northup from across the Ohio River, who is trying to regain the seat she lost to Democrat John Yarmuth.

"They were part of the Bush faction, and people are wanting a change," he said. "So far, we have had eight years of nothing to show for it but recession."

Stroud said the dynamics of the race are the same as in 2006: jobs, the economy and fuel prices.

"Sodrel is part of the rich people intellect and did nothing to help the poor class of people," he said.

Floyd County Democratic Party Chair Randall Stumler said Sodrel and Northup were simply "rubber stamps" for the Bush administration.

"Tax breaks for the rich, corporation giveaways, record profits for oil companies, cronyism — people have had enough," he said. "Karl Rove could only fool the people for so long. … You can't tell the country that everything is going great when the stock market is tumbling, home foreclosures are at a record high and all the other bad economic news and have the people believe it.

"I would call this a smarter, more involved electorate this year. Record numbers of people are paying attention to what is really going on, and they won't be bamboozled anymore," Stumler said.

Harrison County Republican Chair Scott Fluhr, however, said the issues people care about most make him believe 2008 will be a good year for Sodrel.

"Right now, and it could easily change between now and November, I would say that people are upset about taxes and want change — the state aspect of taxes could well shake out by November, given the bipartisan tax reform package that the governor got passed through the General Assembly," he said.

"They voted for change in 2006, to be sure, but they don't seem to be happy at all with the change that they got," Fluhr added. "You can see that anecdotally just in talking to people, and you can see it in polling."

Fluhr pointed to record-low congressional approval ratings, and noted that the displeasure Americans are feeling toward Congress is beginning to show in national generic congressional polls.

"It hasn't shown numbers this favorable to Republicans since 2002," he said. "That was a very Republican year nationally and locally."

However, Hill defeated Sodrel that year by some 9,000 votes.

Stumler agreed that the dynamics have changed, but not in a way that is favorable for Sodrel.

"The political climate has changed drastically since 2004, and is even more shifted since 2006," he said. "The word I hear from people is that they want fundamental change. One guy in a restaurant told me yesterday that 'if Democrats can't do it this year, then they never will.'

"The people are speaking in droves, witnessed by the number of new people voting and involved in the process this year," Stumler said. "They want a new direction in Iraq, health care that's affordable and a cleaner environment. That's just a start."

Crecelius, however, said Sodrel should be helped by the fact that 2008 is a presidential election year, noting turnout historically is larger when there's a presidential vote, and a larger turnout tends to favor Republicans. That was the case four years ago, when 72,000 more votes were cast than in 2006.

Lower turnout, combined with a general anti-Republican tide because of the Iraq War and a low job approval rating for President Bush, made 2006 a difficult election year for Sodrel, Crecelius said.

This year, he said, should be different, in part because GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain should prove to be more popular among voters than either Democratic challenger. He said Sen. Hillary Clinton isn't well liked in the district, and Sen. Barack Obama is also weak among district voters.

Stumler disagreed, saying the presidential election should help because of excitement it's stirring within the Democratic Party throughout the country.

"This presidential election is bringing out record numbers of voters everywhere, and Indiana will be no different than the trends in the rest of the nation," he said, noting Clinton's appearance in New Albany on Saturday.

While Crecelius disagreed, he admitted he would be concerned if Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a popular former two-term Democratic governor who is serving as a national co-chair for Clinton, were to be named a vice presidential running mate.

"If that would happen, that would be disastrous, I think, for the Republicans," he said.

Stroud said he doesn't think the presidential race will have much effect on the congressional race.

"Not as much since that is more of a district race, but sometimes you get the coattail effect," he said. "Gubernatorial (race) more so."

Stumler agreed the gubernatorial race, which will pit Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels against either Jill Long Thompson or Jim Schellinger, will have an impact in the congressional race.

"Both candidates have visited multiple times, meeting the people and listening," he said.

Fluhr, however, echoed Crecelius' views that 2008 being a presidential election year should help the GOP.

"The area is generally conservative, whether those are conservative Republicans or conservative Democrats," he said. "The more people vote in Southern Indiana, and in Harrison County, the more they tend in aggregate to favor the conservative candidate. This is a trend that tends to benefit Republicans, as they are generally the more conservative party."

He added: "Whether someone is running for Congress or they are running for coroner, Republicans do better in presidential election years in Southern Indiana than they tend to do in midterm or 'off-election' years.

"In 2002, Mike Sodrel lost to Baron Hill by about 10,000 votes," Fluhr said. "In 2004, that huge vote tide in favor of the Republican presidential ticket lifted all boats: Mike beat Mr. Hill by 1,500 votes. In 2006, that tide was not present, and Mike lost to Mr. Hill again by about 10,000 votes."

Fluhr said he doesn't know any voters personally who have switched back and forth between Hill and Sodrel, but added, "Empirically, you can see from looking at the vote totals that people have switched back and forth."

Stroud said he, too, knows no one who switched their votes, but Stumler said he is aware of one life-long Republican who said they would vote Democratic this year because of being disgruntled with the Bush Administration.

However, Crecelius said he knows of one person who voted for Hill in the previous three elections who will vote for Sodrel this time.

Crecelius said constituents want their congressman to be responsive to their needs and address problems they have with federal services, like Social Security, and he doesn't believe that Hill, unlike Democrat Lee Hamilton, who held the seat from 1965 through 1999, has done that.

Stroud, however, said Hill has done a good job, unlike Sodrel during his lone term.

"(Voters) want someone that will work for the people and have his own mind, not someone that has to bow to a higher authority every time a decision is made," he said. "I think Hill has done a decent job at respecting the people's wishes."

Stumler said constituents want a representative who understands "what it is to live the daily struggles and joys of Southern Indiana."

"That's the choice between Baron and Sodrel," he said.

Fluhr said voters gave Hill another chance when they sent him back to Washington, D.C., but he has failed.

"Baron Hill got re-elected by claiming that he had changed, but since being sent back to Washington, he has engaged in more of the same stuff — more taxes, more spending, more government waste, more support for liberal social values — that he was sent home for doing the first time," he said. "Mr. Hill got voted out in 2004 because he told people in Indiana one thing, and then he went to Washington and did another."

Fluhr said people in the Ninth District don't want "more government waste. They don't want more pork barrel earmarks to pad the coffers of political cronies and lobbyists. They don't want the federal government spending their tax dollars on abortions. They don't want their taxes to go up. They don't want amnesty for illegal immigrants, and they don't want Congress to take funding away from the border fence.

"And people around here aren't for defeat in the war. They may not have liked how the war was going in 2006, and they voted to give Washington and the White House that message. But they were heard. The strategy changed, and things seem to be moving in a different and more positive direction now."

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