Burton challenger boasts impressive war chest

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) faces a crowded field of four primary challengers, but new fundraising reports indicate that one of them has emerged as the most formidable.

The key for former state Rep. Luke Messer will be to continue asserting himself and to avoid losing anti-incumbent votes to three other challengers.

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Messer raised more than $200,000 in the second quarter, trumping the incumbent’s $140,000 and the rest of the field, in which nobody raised more than $80,000.

Political observers say Messer has made himself the early front-runner to become a clear alternative to Burton.

“If Dan Burton had one opponent instead of four, he’s in trouble,” said Indiana political analyst Brian Howey. “There’s this growing feeling that unless the field is winnowed down, he’s likely to win a multiperson primary.”

Howey said Messer’s ability to continue outpacing his opponents by a wide margin would likely lead to a “come-to-Jesus” meeting around the turn of the year. The filing deadline for the May 2010 primary is in February.

While Messer’s total put him in a class by himself, the other contenders all raised enough money to keep their campaigns reasonably formidable and, feasibly, in the race for a long time.

Former Marion County Coroner John McGoff raised a relatively meager $470,000 when he fell to Burton 52-45 in 2008. But Messer has set the bar for himself at between $800,000 and $1 million, and he’s trying to up the ante for the rest of the field, too.

“John McGoff spent about $500,000 last time, and he didn’t win,” Messer said, adding that his $800,000-$1 million range “is about the pace we need to be on.”

Some analysts agree that the next quarter or two will be very telling about the future of the race, and they aren’t yet betting against the other candidates trimming the margin.

State Rep. Mike Murphy, who raised $62,000, was dealing with a special session of the State Legislature and could have more time to raise money in the coming months. McGoff is off his 2008 pace with $39,000 raised, but he entered the race later than the others. And businessman Brose McVey, who put together $76,000 in the second quarter and more than $100,000 total so far, raised a solid $1.1 million for a general-election race in the neighboring 7th district in 2002.

“Luke is definitely the challenger to watch to see if he can keep his numbers up,” said an Indiana Republican operative. “The next quarter will be really important for McGoff in particular.”

Another Republican supporting Messer suggested the next quarter could crystallize things even further, as the candidates have to venture beyond their close associates.

“The first $100,000 is the easy $100,000; it’s what do you do in the second or third quarter,” the Republican said. “Who’s the guy who can continue the fundraising pace? I certainly don’t think these guys are going to have better quarters than they just had.”

Messer insists he can win even if the rest of the field stays in the race, but anti-Burton folks want to avoid that. Already, McVey and GOP donor (and Messer backer) P.E. MacAllister have made separate efforts to try and clear the field for whoever winds up being the top candidate. Those efforts have failed to this point.

Sean Bartley, a spokesman for McVey, said his boss would still honor the agreement and bow out if he doesn’t meet its criteria.

“He’s said if he’s not met the criteria that he would get out,” Bartley said. “But we’re on pace to meet all that criteria.”

Crowded primaries have saved several incumbents in recent years. Last year, Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) won renomination with just 39 percent of the vote against two challengers, and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) won his primary with 44 percent against two opponents.

Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) wasn’t as fortunate, finishing second in a three-candidate primary field with 33 percent of the vote.

Howey said Burton is thought by local Republicans to be in a similar situation — right around the 35 percent mark — meaning as few as two solid primary challengers could combine to keep him an incumbent.

Burton’s office decline to comment for this article, saying the congressman is focused on his work.

Marion County Republican Party Chairman Tom John said the second-quarter reports showed a weakness in Burton’s fundraising operation. Burton raised about two-fifths of what the entire GOP field raised, and he began the cycle with significantly less cash on hand than last cycle thanks to the 2008 primary.

John put the starting line at $200,000 for the race, saying that amount would be required to have any significant media presence.

“I believe that the crowded primary will only apply if all of the challengers have enough money to actually assert themselves,” John said. “Count the number of people who actually get to $200,000 … and you can really ignore anybody who doesn’t get to that point.”