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May 1, 2010

HOWEY: Mark Souder’s last hurrah in a bizarre election year

>>SOUTHERN INDIANA — U.S. Rep. Mark Souder was on the phone with me while darting in and out of the House chambers casting votes on Wednesday afternoon. He was in the midst of spending an uncharacteristic $400,000 to fend off auto dealer Bob Thomas, who moved into northeastern Indiana’s 3rd District to take a shot at the incumbent who knows a thing or two about national waves. Souder was swept in on one in 1994.

“I think we’re going to be fine,” Souder said of his primary prospects, pointing to winning two recent Tea Party and 9/12 straw polls in New Haven and Goshen – events he did not attend. “But I’ve been miserable.”

A few minutes later, he was talking about his likely last hurrah. “I was thinking this was going to be my last term,” he said as he described his opponent’s relentless attacks over bailouts and cash for clunkers. “This just sealed it.”

With his father and brothers dying in their 50s of heart attacks, and his doctor warning him about stress, Souder talked of barely seeing his grandchildren. It has, he said, been stressful dealing with the Obama presidency as a conservative, even though his primary opponents are portraying him as a liberal big spender.

If he wins the primary and defeats Dr. Tom Hayhurst in the fall, Souder said it would make sense to retire, so that the next GOP nominee won’t have to run in the coming Republican president’s first mid-term in 2014.

I remembered my first conversations with Souder in his Grabill antique shop during the last big wave of 1994. But this election year has become one of the more bizarre election sequences in recent Indiana history. Next Tuesday, we'll learn a great deal about where this state stands politically.

The banner headline from the era is that U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh walked away from a position many assumed he'd have for as long as he wanted. Ascending to the Democratic Senate nomination is U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who will be officially selected by the Indiana Democratic Central Committee on May 15. The rank-and-file Democratic primary voter will not get a say. This was a power play by Bayh, who many assume will come back and run for governor in two years.

We saw three former members of Congress - Dan Coats, John Hostettler and Mike Sodrel - re-emerge after many assumed they were part of our past. Coats and Hostettler are seeking the Bayh Senate seat, and Sodrel is seeking a fifth matchup with U.S. Rep. Baron Hill, but he first has to defeat Bloomington attorney Todd Young in the primary. Young has raised an astounding $450,000 and is trying to make the case that it's time for new leadership in Washington.

We've seen a number of indicators — most recently a Pew Research Poll — that shows only 22 percent have any faith in our leadership in Washington. In a Rasmussen Reports poll, 33 percent say the country is headed in the wrong direction, only 24 percent say the federal government can adequately monitor the Wall Street barons that put us on the brink of an economic catastrophe in September 2008, 73 percent believe Goldman Sachs committed fraud, and only 32 percent are confident policymakers know what they're doing about the economy.

It is fascinating, then, at this writing that Senate Republicans are seeking to block Wall Street reforms the way they did health care

In this setting, if you're U.S. Reps. Dan Burton or Souder — facing well-funded Republican primary opponents — you've got to be concerned about the throw-the-bums-out mentality. Burton has six primary opponents who have out-raised him. Only two Republican county chairmen in his district support his reelection. There have been scores of defections by county sheriffs, commissioners, legislators and mayors in his district. He was "endorsed" in a TV ad by actors from an Ohio ad agency.

Burton may win a 15th term simply because he has so many primary opponents.

In Souder’s primary, the Republicans have raised and spent more money than the four Republicans trying to defeat Dan Coats in a statewide Senate race.

As we come into spring, Republicans are stirring at the blood in the water after President Obama signed the health reforms into law and the jobless rate hovers around 10 percent.

But things are starting to improve. Home sales are up. There are indicators that companies are beginning to hire again. The American auto industry was in near collapse a year ago. This past week, GM announced it would hire 245 workers in Bedford and Chrysler is adding 339 in Kokomo.

Souder took heat for backing President Bush and to some extent Obama on the auto bailout. Since then, GM has paid back a government loan five years early and added more than 1,200 jobs at Fort Wayne and Marion.

Yes, it’s been a strange, volatile year. Who knows how the final chapters will be written?

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com

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