Analysts say it plays into national political narrative
By Kevin Allen
Political junkies across the nation may turn their eyes toward north-central Indiana this summer and fall.
The 2nd District congressional race between incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, and state Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown, could grab national attention because it plays into the larger narrative of this political season, local analysts say.
"We're really seeing an orchestrated campaign nationwide to recruit tough (Republican) candidates like Walorski, who will really frame their race as part of this national referendum on President Obama and his policies," said Elizabeth Bennion, a professor of political science at Indiana University South Bend.
In other words, Republicans are hoping 2010 is their version of 2006. That's when Democrats across the nation rode a wave of voter frustration with President George W. Bush and Republican policies to gain 31 congressional seats and take control of the House of Representatives.
Donnelly was one of those Democrats first elected in 2006, when he upset two-term incumbent Republican Chris Chocola in the mid-term election.
Walorski will try to show Donnelly the other side of that coin in November, but she's still an underdog, according to early projections.
Last Tuesday, The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes campaigns for federal offices, rated the 2nd District race as "likely Democratic," meaning "the seat is not competitive but has the potential to become engaged."
"Donnelly still has the advantages," said Sean Savage, a professor of political science at Saint Mary's College. "He's still the incumbent. He still has a lot of money in his campaign chest."
Donnelly's campaign had received $955,122 and had $848,739 on hand through April 14, while Walorski's campaign had received $304,655 and had $153,342 on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission.
"The fact that (Walorski) raised over $300,000 in a primary is impressive," Bennion said.
How much time and money national Republican leaders will invest in her general-election campaign will likely depend on whether polls show the party can gain at least 15 congressional seats in November, Savage said.
He said he wouldn't be surprised if former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or other national Republican figures visit the 2nd
District during the campaign.
Bennion and Savage said Donnelly has built a reputation as a moderate Democrat who supports Second Amendment rights and pro-life causes. In February, National Journal Magazine rated him the eighth-most conservative Democrat in Congress.
But the professors expect Walorski to continue to equate him with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama for voting in support of health care reform and economic stimulus spending.
Donnelly said he's not concerned about that characterization sticking.
"I have cut my own path," he said, explaining that he has opposed fellow Democrats on issues such as cap-and-trade legislation and amnesty for illegal immigrants. "Sometimes I'm with my party and sometimes I'm not."
Walorski said she isn't talking about Pelosi or Obama or health care reform because it's a campaign strategy.
"I'm talking about what I'm hearing in the 2nd District," she said. "From St. Joe County down to Kokomo, people are very worried about the economy. They're very worried about the (national) debt."
Donnelly said his votes for health care reform and the stimulus were tough decisions, but they were the right decisions.
"You don't get to cast just easy votes," he said.
How much the economy improves between now and November will also play a big role in how voters feel about incumbents, Bennion said.
Donnelly noted that the nation added 162,000 jobs in March and another 295,000 jobs in April.
"I'm focused on jobs and jobs and then more jobs. That's first and foremost," he said.
Walorski countered that the economic-stimulus package was sold last year as a way to lower unemployment, but the U.S. jobless rate remained high at 9.9 percent in April.
No matter what happens in November, Bennion and Savage agreed the race between Donnelly and Walorski will be far more competitive than the congressman's re-election two years ago, when he won two-thirds of the votes against Republican Luke Puckett.
"I don't think anybody, Democrat or Republican, believes this is going to be like the 2008 election, where Donnelly walks away with an easy victory," Bennion said.
"I don't like to make predictions," she said wryly, "but I don't think he'll get 67 percent of the vote in this election."