Rep. Bucshon has edge against Tea Party challenge, but tough general election looms

Freshman Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) appears to have the edge on Tea Party challenger Kristi Risk (R) in their May 8 primary, but he’s taking no chances in the race — and his heavy spending and efforts to solidify conservative support could hurt him in the general election.

Bucshon narrowly beat Risk in 2010, besting her in a crowded Republican field by a four-point margin. 

Risk has struggled mightily with fundraising, and many of the national groups that have backed Tea Party challengers in other races haven’t stepped in to help her. But local observers say she’s worked hard at the ground game, forcing him to focus on the primary rather than pivot to the general election in the swing district.

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The primary will be held the same day as the barn-burner between Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R), a Tea Party favorite. Mourdock’s home base is in the congressional district and he’ll be turning out more conservative voters in droves, which could give Risk some coattails.

Bucshon’s campaign isn’t taking anything for granted: he’s spending more than $100,000 on television advertising ahead of the primary, money that goes a long way in the inexpensive Evansville and Terre Haute media markets.

“I feel good about what we’re doing on the campaign side,” said Bucshon campaign manager Patrick Murphy. “We’re hitting it on every level — we’ve got the fundraising, media, direct mail and the grassroots all going.”

Besides voting with most other Republicans on the debt-ceiling compromise, Bucshon has left little daylight to his right — both the National Rifle Association and Indiana Right to Life have endorsed him in the primary.

“Larry has a very conservative record based on his principles and he’s proud of it,” said Murphy. “Larry is a Tea Party candidate and his views are right in line with the majority of Tea Party members.”

“Risk is being energetic, showing up everywhere … but I think Bucshon is going to pull it out,” said Brian Howey, the editor of the respected newsletter Howey Politics Indiana. “You have to take her seriously, but I’m not sure I see an upset brewing.”

But a primary win doesn’t guarantee Bucshon a return to Congress. While the district is culturally conservative, it has swung back and forth between the parties in recent elections and became slightly more Democratic in redistricting. Democrats are high on their recruit there, former Indiana state Sen. Dave Crooks (D), a social conservative who is a well-known radio personality in the district.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently added him to their “Red to Blue” list of top recruits, and the Blue Dog PAC, which backs fiscally conservative Democrats, endorsed him this week.

His voting record has helped in the primary — but could cost him in the general election. Crooks has already criticized him for voting for the Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) Republican budget, which would partially privatize Medicare. 

The money he’s been forced to spend on the primary also could have been used in the general election — Crooks outraised him in the last quarter and has nearly matched him in cash on hand.

While Bucshon’s primary opponent Risk has run an active campaign, she has raised only $60,000 total for the race and had less than $8,000 in the bank as of the beginning of May.

She argues, though, that her efforts on the ground matter more than her lack of television ads. “I’ve put 30,000 miles on my car for this race,” she told The Hill. “We had a lot of grassroots support last time and we’ve got a lot of Republican support, elected officials across the district who are supporting us and I think we have a really good shot. I’m very confident.”