WASHINGTON – A place that is immortalized in a song like John Cougar Mellencamp’s (search) "Small Town" is expected to stick to its ways, but politically, some hopefuls are charging that Seymour, Ind., the rocker's hometown, is changing day by day.
While the 9th Congressional District is as conservative as ever, the area has been represented by a Democrat since the Civil War. Now, Republicans say politicians like Democratic Rep. Baron Hill (search) are growing more and more endangered in this suburb of Cincinnati and Louisville.
"(We’re) getting more registered Republicans, as well as what I would call more conservative thinking," said Jim Kittle Jr., Indiana Republican Party Chairman. "We think for a district we don’t hold in the state, the 9th is the number one opportunity."
Holding his ground is Hill’s number one priority. A three-year incumbent who represents the district in which he grew up, Hill doesn’t think his constituents are looking for a change, but he’s gearing up for a battle just the same.
"Frankly, Democrats are very motivated going into this election and I don’t think anyone can underestimate the strength of that motivation," said Hill's spokesman Luke Clippinger.
Analysts say national Republicans were caught off guard in 2002, when political novice Mike Sodrel (search) ran a $1.1 million campaign against Hill and nearly won, losing 51 percent to 46 percent. The party had ignored Sodrel’s dogged pursuit of Hill, and even knocked the race off of its target list.
Sodrel is back this year, and national Republicans say they won’t make the same mistake again.
"I certainly think the dynamics are different this election," said National Republican Congressional Committee (search) spokesman Bo Harmon, who called Sodrel "an excellent candidate."
"Sodrel is a more experienced candidate with a more established fund-raising and organizational base," he said, noting that Sodrel has already drawn a visit of support from Vice President Dick Cheney.
Sodrel, meanwhile, plays down the polish. "I’m not a politician, I am a small business person," Sodrel told FOXNews.com, referring to his longtime trucking business, which employs about 500 people.
"They’re not just 500 jobs, but 500 family-supporting, good jobs," he said. "You get tired of dealing with someone who doesn’t understand how high regulations and high taxes strangles American jobs."
Therein lies the crux of Sodrel’s brief against Hill, who owned his own insurance agency, served in the state House of Representatives for eight years and held a state appointment after an unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate in 1990.
A member of the Blue Dog Democrats (search), who espouse fiscal responsibility, and a social moderate, Hill has maintained his Democratic responsibilities along with his duty to reflect a more conservative, rural constituency, said Clippinger.
"There are sometimes challenging issues that come up, but the vast majority of the time he knows what he was sent to Washington to do, to represent the people of the 9th District," he said. "It’s not that hard to reconcile when you are staying that close in touch with the people."
Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, and a Blue Dog leader, said Hill’s commitment to the mission is true. "[He] not only talks the talk but walks the walk when it comes to our group’s message of fiscal responsibility," Turner told FOXNews.com.
"He’s an advocate both in the Capitol and in his district back home for moderate values and the importance of getting our nation’s fiscal house back into order."
To do this, Hill has said President Bush’s tax cuts cannot be made permanent.
He has voted to reject the permanency of the elimination of the marriage penalty tax as well as a measure that would have extended exemptions for the alternative minimum tax.
Hill explained his stance in January in a statement responding to Bush’s State of the Union speech. "Continuing to blindly cut taxes and spend with reckless abandon will make it more difficult to deal with our mounting commitments to Medicare (search) and Social Security (search) beneficiaries," he said.
Republicans say Hill continues to spend, despite his anti-spending rhetoric. The National Taxpayers' Union (search) gave him a "D" rating based on his votes against tax cuts and for more spending in the 108th Congress.
"His votes have alienated some people in the last couple of years," said Sodrel. "[Hill] has got a track record for not helping small businesses, and most of the businesses in the 9th District are small businesses; we don’t have a General Motors or Ford Motor Company. We have a lot of family-owned businesses and farms."
Clippinger said his boss knows that many of his constituents in this southeastern region along the Ohio River have long counted on manufacturing jobs that no longer exist. He does see promise, however, in the pharmaceutical and medical sciences industry, with many bright minds from nearby Indiana University (search) in Bloomington remaining in the area to work.
"We have a lot of talent here," said Clippinger. "It’s very important for us."
Sodrel said voters’ disenchantment with the economy outweighs any talk. Voters are also concerned about the war in Iraq and social issues like gay marriage. He added that he believes that the popularity of Bush will give him a boost this time around.
"I think the people of this district support the president and his policies and my opponent does not," he said. Bush carried the 9th District 56 percent to 42 percent in the 2000 election.
Clippinger said the Bush factor matters little in their small town. Hill, who walked the state for the 1998 campaign, has maintained a trust with the people in the 9th District that he believes is still strong today.
"People here tend to vote for people they know and feel comfortable with," he said, "and that’s kind of what we’re looking at here."