When Mike Sodrel defeated Rep. Baron Hill by fewer than 1,500 votes in Indiana in 2004, he was the only Republican challenger to beat a Democratic incumbent outside of Tom DeLay-redistricted Texas.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) outspent the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) by $1 million over the last two months of the campaign in Indiana’s 9th District, while Democrats pumped millions into the races of four incumbent Texas Democrats who lost by double digits in their newly drawn districts.
Now Hill is back, trying to regain the seat in his third straight race against Sodrel. The race is expected again to be one of the closest in the House, with most experts calling it a toss-up, and both candidates are seeing a level of interest they haven’t seen in their two previous match-ups.
Hill said he doesn’t want to talk about what happened in 2004, especially support from his party. “I’m not going to judge that,” Hill said.
“That was then, and this is now. I’m focused on now and not then. All I know is I like what’s going on with the DCCC right now.”
He said that the DCCC has been “much more aggressive” and helpful this time around.
Hill, who served three terms until the loss, beat Sodrel by five points in 2002. That year, it was Sodrel largely fending for himself. He spent more than $1 million of his own money with barely any help from Washington.
This year, however, both of them will be running with the record of an incumbent and an anxious national party behind them. The rematch was sealed last week when they both coasted to primary victories.
“I can’t imagine that this race would be any less expensive than the race in ’04 and probably will cost somewhat more,” Sodrel said. “For better or worse,” he said, it has “kind of become a national race rather than a district race.”
DCCC spokeswoman Adrienne Elrod said the race is “obviously one of our top priorities” and that she expects Democratic momentum to “easily flip of lot of those middle-of-the-road swing voters” in districts like Sodrel’s.
NRCC spokesman Ed Patru said Hill’s experience in 2004 was symptomatic of how the Democrats have operated.
“Last cycle, Democrats made a lot of financial promises to a lot of candidates that they weren’t able to keep,” Patru said. “Our strategy this cycle will be to remind voters why they threw Baron Hill out of office in the first place.”
Hill and Sodrel are both pitching themselves as the candidate of change despite their recent time in Congress.
“The people in the district believe I am change,” Sodrel said. “I’m not a person who has spent a lifetime in politics. As a matter of fact, I’m not even from a political family. I’m the first in my family to serve in public office, and this is the first public office I’ve held.”
Hill said he sees a sizable difference in “my constituents,” even since he decided to run again six months ago.
He emphasizes values and fiscal responsibility in a district that trends significantly conservative. President Bush got 59 percent of the vote there in 2004. But the district has long sent a Democrat to Washington; Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) represented it for 34 years before retiring and giving way to Hill.
This year, with Bush’s approval ratings are lingering in the 30s, Sodrel said that he doesn’t always agree with the president but that he would welcome his help on the campaign. “I’m not a rubber stamp for him,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m not running away from him.”
The DCCC recently started running ads on Christian and conservative radio stations in Sodrel’s and four other districts attacking Bush and congressional Republicans for attempting to privatize Social Security.
The NRCC shot back, saying Hill himself had, while in Congress in 2002, expressed interest in privatization.
Hill said he thinks the quality of personnel and energy at the House Democrats’ campaign operation is the best he’s ever seen. After raising money Tuesday at DCCC headquarters, he attributed that difference to one factor: Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).
“I think Rahm is spending a lot of time at it,” Hill said. “He’s interested in the nuances of each campaign, and I have been impressed with his efforts so far.”
In the final two months of 2004, the DCCC spent nearly $5 million on five Texas incumbents: $500,000 on Max Sandlin, $1.1 million on Nick Lampson, $1.5 million on Chet Edwards, $1.1 million on Martin Frost and $300,000 on Charlie Stenholm. Edwards won, and Frost was closest among the other four, losing by 10 points.
Hill, meanwhile, got about $750,000 of support.
After the 2004 election, Democratic aides said the DCCC wasted valuable resources on Texas races that could have pushed Hill to victory.