Anti-incumbent sentiment may flare up among voters in Indiana’s GOP primaries

Did the Butler Bulldogs pave the way for more underdogs in Indiana?

Two weeks after Butler stunned the sports world by making it to the NCAA basketball championship game, a few Hoosier State Republicans are waging similar battles against the political establishment.

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If there is a significant anti-incumbent sentiment outside the Beltway, it could show up in at least three of Indiana’s GOP primaries.

Indiana political analyst Brian Howey said the state would serve as a “Petri dish” for testing anti-incumbency.

“We haven’t had many congressional primaries in which the strength and animation of this anti-incumbency has really been demonstrated,” Howey said.

While there have been isolated cases of anti-Washington sentiment wading into primaries — Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) victory over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) last month being the most visible — so far the data is piecemeal.

That could change May 4 in Indiana, where former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) are facing tough challenges from within their party. 

The big one is the Senate race, where Coats’s attempt to return to the upper chamber has not gone smoothly. 

In recent days, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene have endorsed state Sen. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) in the primary, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has backed former Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.).

Coats is still the favorite and has landed the backing of Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who did a radio ad. But thanks to Coats’s late start and some low fundraising numbers, the race is up in the air.

Republican National Committeeman Jim Bopp, who is backing Coats, said the anti-Washington sentiment could hurt the former senator even though he hasn’t been on the ballot since 1992.

“It might hurt him a little bit,” Bopp said. “He’s not the incumbent, but he’s certainly been in the Senate.”

Bopp said the anti-incumbent mood is real, and he’s hoping it registers in one of the state’s other primaries as well. In the race against Rep. Burton, Bopp is supporting one of the incumbent’s primary challengers, state Rep. Luke Messer.

“I think it’ll be about the anti-incumbent mood,” Bopp said. “There are going to be a lot of candidates who are going to get caught up in that.”

Burton won a surprisingly low 52 percent of the vote in a 2008 primary with Dr. John McGoff. Messer has built up the biggest war chest to take advantage, but McGoff and two other candidates are crowding the primary and complicating the math. It seems conceivable now that Burton could take around one-third of the vote and still win renomination.

The four candidates have been bludgeoning the incumbent with ads tying him to Washington. On Thursday, Messer is set to debut a TV ad noting that, when Burton was elected 28 years ago, “a blackberry was just a fruit” and Ronald Reagan was president.

“The environment is far more anti-Washington and anti-incumbent than partisan,” Messer said.

Burton spokesman John Donnelly acknowledged the environment.

“The anti-incumbent sentiment does present a challenge, but the congressman’s got a consistent conservative record and identified with the vast majority of the district he represents,” he said.

Another GOP incumbent who could have something to worry about in two weeks is Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.). The incumbent was forced to go up with some primary ads last month after car dealer Bob Thomas threatened to spend heavily from his personal funds.

There is scant evidence that Souder is in serious trouble. Indeed, his campaign points to his large victory in a recent Tea Party straw poll, where anti-incumbent opposition would otherwise be likely to register.

But over Souder’s career, as many as 40 percent of primary voters have shown a willingness to vote against the incumbent. And Thomas hopes that’s even higher this year.

“Ours is a clear-cut case of a politician against a lifelong businessman,” he said.

Comparing Souder’s primary to Burton’s isn’t exactly apples-to-apples; while Souder voted for the bailout, Burton voted against it. But if either one goes down, it would represent a shot across the bow to incumbents nationwide.

Coats is in a similar situation. Following his endorsement of Stutzman, DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund helped the state senator basically double his cash on hand by raising more than $70,000.

The senator has also endorsed underdogs in California and Colorado. But Indiana will be the first race in which a DeMint-endorsed candidate will take on the GOP establishment.

The senator said Stutzman is a good example of what underdogs can do.

“I think that’s catching hold,” DeMint said. “I think what we’re seeing in Indiana is what we’re seeing all across America — that they want new faces in Washington.”

Coats spokesman Pete Seat said focusing on his boss’s experience on the issues is a winning argument. 

“Dan Coats’s emphasis on limited government, lower taxes, less spending, a strong national defense and protecting personal liberty is resonating with Hoosiers across Indiana from all walks of life,” Seat said.