In Indiana’s ‘Bloody Eighth,’ Larry Bucshon faces tea party challenge, empowered Dems

Posted on: August 26th, 2011 by Nicolas Mendoza No Comments

Image by Matt MahurinThis report is part of collaboration with WNYC’s “It’s a Free Country” to cover the 25 most captivating congressional races from around the country.

On August 1, Larry Bucshon, a freshman GOP representative from Indiana’s Eighth Congressional District, joined the majority of his caucus to vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling in exchange for a package of spending cuts and the promise of more to come. It’s a vote congressional Republican leaders desperately needed their freshmen members to support so as to avoid an impending national default. Back home in Bucshon’s district, however, the vote may come back to haunt him, as Bucshon is facing a tea party challenge at a time when he can least afford it.

Nicknamed “the Bloody Eighth” by political observers for its postwar tradition of tough campaigns and losing incumbents, Bucshon’s district is one of a handful being targeted and closely watched by national Democrats. A perennial swing district, its U.S. representative has been a reflection of who controls the House for the past two decades: John Hostettler, one of the most conservative of the Gingrich class of 1994, was defeated by Blue Dog Brad Ellsworth in 2006. When Ellsworth retired, the seat was won by heart surgeon Bucshon in the 2010 Republican sweep.

Like other states with newly GOP-controlled state legislatures across the country, Indiana has recently approved congressional redistricting plans that have strengthened the position of some of the Republican incumbents. Freshman Bucshon isn’t one of them, though: The Eighth District has lost three strongly conservative counties and gained three comparably more moderate ones, which Democrats believe puts the odds of regaining the seat more in their favor.

Two Democrats are currently vying for the nomination: Warrick County Democratic Party chair Terry White and former state representative Dave Crooks. Both fit within the tradition of moderate-to-conservative Blue Dog candidates that won districts like the Indiana Eighth all across the country when Democrats last took the House in 2006.

White describes himself as “pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-small business,” as is appropriate for a district that is “conservative in nature,” but he says he’s also “pro-union and pro-labor.” He told The American Independent that efforts by the Republicans in the General Assembly to pass anti-union legislation such as “right-to-work” and a school voucher program are going to mobilize traditionally Democratic constituencies, such as teachers and other public-sector workers, that were relatively more apathetic in the previous 2010 election cycle.

White thinks that because he’s from Evansville, the city that is the historical power center of the Eighth District, he has an advantage in the primary over Crooks, whose county is comparatively more rural. He also points to his lack of a voting record to defend as a good advantage he will have over both Crooks and, should he get the nomination, Bucshon as well.

Given the predicted favorable climate for whoever their party eventually nominates, both of the Democratic candidates also recognize the need to avoid a drawn-out primary. Crooks told the Evansville Courier & Press when he first entered the race that he has reached out to White, and is “doing everything I can to keep as many people out of the primary as possible.”

Whoever wins the primary, Indiana Democrats see 2012 as their best shot at winning back the Eighth District for a long time to come. As a freshmen representative, Bucshon has yet to accrue all of the advantages that incumbency brings in the House of Representatives. “He got elected in a tsunami last year,” White says, “where basically all you had to do was breathe and be a Republican and get elected.”

Bucshon is also facing a primary challenge from Kristi Risk, who ran against Bucshon in the 2010 primary to replace retiring Democratic incumbent Ellsworth. Running a campaign with strong support from the newly-founded tea party movement, Risk came very close to winning the nomination in an eight-candidate primary where national Republican leaders and donors had rallied behind Bucshon. Risk garnered 29 percent of the vote to Bucshon’s 33, a considerable achievement for a stay-at-home mother and political novice who designed and printed her own political fliers.

“I think that I would have voted differently in some areas,” Risk told TAI, on how she differentiates herself from Bucshon. In addition to the debt ceiling, Risk points to the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act, which Bucshon voted for, and military withdrawal from Libya, which Bucshon voted against. Her website has a long list of issues that echo tea party themes, including a call for “sound monetary policy” (which would “remove the power of a few to create fiat money that enslaves the citizens of our nation”) and a promise to “defend against efforts by the United Nations to supersede our God-given parental rights.”

Risk says she hasn’t been following the Democratic primary, but they have certainly been following her. Were Risk to defeat Bucshon, White told TAI, it would give the Democrats an advantage.

“She is the tea party candidate and they don’t think that Bucshon is conservative enough.” In Southwest Indiana, he says, “we are conservative people, sure, but we are also reasonable people.”

Democrats in Evansville don’t think there’s a high probability that Risk will unseat Bucshon, but he will nevertheless be forced to spend time and money fighting her off, which will weaken him in a general election that’s sure to be heated. (Bucshon did not respond to TAI’s request for comment by publish time.) And just like in 2010, Risk won’t need money or the institutional support of a national party if she can get Evangelicals and tea party activists to canvass for her. She points to her campaign manager Sean Selby, a former organizer for Hotstettler, as a sign that her campaign will have the benefit of political experience this time around.

Democrats hope she’s right.

This report is part of collaboration with WNYC’s “It’s a Free Country” to cover the 25 most captivating congressional races from around the country.

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