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Indiana Democrats seeking end to their legislative futility

April 14, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Democrats say a jump in new candidates on the May 8 primary ballot is a sign that they could cut into large Republican majorities in the state House and Senate that have left them largely powerless over the past six years.

Republican voters, meanwhile, will decide numerous contested races, with candidates including the wife and son of former GOP congressmen among those seeking legislative nominations.

Here’s a look at some key primary races involving half of the seats in the 50-member Indiana Senate and all 100 seats in the Indiana House:

OPEN SEAT SCRUMS

Several long-time legislators decided not to seek new terms this year, leading to packed primary fields for some of the eight open House seats now held by Republicans and five House seats being given up by Democratic incumbents.

Those races feature some well-known names, such as Republican Matt Hostettler, the son of former U.S. Rep. John Hostettler, who is seeking an open GOP seat in the Evansville area, running against a Vanderburgh County commissioner and a retired dentist who narrowly lost a 2010 legislative election.

Another is Christy Stutzman, the wife of former U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, for a seat from northern Indiana’s Elkhart County. Marlin Stutzman lost a 2016 Republican primary U.S. Senate bid amid ethics concerns from an Associated Press investigation into the spending of campaign money on hotels, meals and at least one family trip.

Former Vigo County Council member Mark Bird, an older brother of Basketball Hall of Famer Larry Bird, is among five Democratic primary candidates for Terre Haute district now held by their party. Gary City Council member Ragen Hatcher, the daughter of former longtime Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, is one of two candidates seeking the Democratic bid to succeed 18-term Democratic Rep. Charlie Brown.

GOP CHALLENGERS

Republican Sen. Mike Delph of Carmel, who’s drawn attention for his outspoken support of tougher immigration restrictions and against recognizing gay marriage, is facing a tough primary fight for his suburban Indianapolis seat. Challenger Corrie Meyer is a former Carmel redevelopment director who has the backing of Carmel’s mayor and five other current or former Republican mayors in or near the district.

GOP Sen. Travis Holdman of Markle is considered a possible candidate to replace retiring Senate President Pro Tem David Long of Fort Wayne as the Senate’s top Republican. But he first faces a primary challenge from Adams County Councilman Eric Orr in a rural district just south of Fort Wayne.

Two northern Indiana House Republican primaries are something of a proxy fight over tactics by anti-abortion groups.

The group Hoosiers for Life is backing challenger William Carlin against Rep. Ben Smaltz of Auburn, whom it has criticized for not allowing the House committee he leads to consider a bill aimed at banning abortions in the state. Smaltz has been endorsed by the larger and better-known Indiana Right to Life group, but Hoosiers for Life has described him as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, pretending to be ‘pro-life.’”

The sponsor of that abortion-ban bill, Rep. Curt Nisly of Goshen, faces a primary matchup against Kosciusko County Council member Kimberly Cates. Indiana Right to Life hasn’t endorsed either candidate.

DEMOCRATS SEE OPPORTUNITIES

Democrats have nearly two-thirds more candidates seeking legislative nominations this year than they did in the last midterm election four years ago. They ended up with candidates on the November 2014 election ballot in only 68 House districts and 16 Senate districts. They already have candidates in 83 House districts and 19 Senate districts, with time to fill ballot vacancies after the primary.

By holding more than two-thirds of the seats in each legislative chamber since the 2012 election, Republicans have enough clout to pass bills even if all Democrats were to boycott votes. Democrats need to add four House seats to break the current 70-30 Republican supermajority, while the GOP’s 41-9 Senate margin means Democrats must pick up at least eight seats.

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody says the party has seen more interest from millennials and women in running for offices and greater enthusiasm among Democrats since President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. He said Democrats will be emphasizing the importance of gaining legislative seats to influence state policy on issues such as education funding, improvements to the Department of Child Services and redistricting reform.

“We say we need to pick up seats and come on and help us do that,” Zody said. “We’re going to pick up as many as we can and we think in the process of doing that we can break the supermajority.”

Mike Murphy, a former Republican legislator from Indianapolis and past Marion County GOP chairman, didn’t discount the greater enthusiasm among Democrats spurred by opposition to Trump, but while the size of the GOP legislative majorities could be cut he said that doesn’t necessarily mean a big wave for Democrats.

“Every race, particularly at the legislative level, is very, very local,” he said. “It is very much based on personalities and who is seen in the community and who do people trust.”

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