WASHINGTON – Rep. Mike Sodrel is the first Republican to represent southern Indiana in the United States Congress since the Civil War. Former Rep. Baron Hill, the most recent Democrat to serve in the 9th District — up until his loss to Sodrel two years ago — intends to make the Republicans' stay in the House a short one.
"I'm optimistic," said Hill. "I've got a good feeling from the people."
But Sodrel, who beat Hill in 2004 on his second consecutive challenge, said he doesn't plan to go anywhere. He said he has been so busy that he hasn't "thought of the race over the last few weeks," despite earning $1.2 million so far and having welcomed the fundraising star power of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. First lady Laura Bush is expected at a June 30 event.
"I absolutely don't take anything for granted; I don't take the voters for granted or the issues for granted," said Sodrel, who claims the Democrats started campaigning against him three weeks after the 2004 election.
That election was won by 1,425 votes. Political analysts say the presence of Bush on the top of the ticket — he won Indiana's 9th Congressional District over Democratic Sen. John Kerry 59 percent to 40 percent — helped to tip the balance in Sodrel's favor.
"I would probably say the president was a huge factor, just having him on the ballot," said Jen Wagner, spokeswoman for the Indiana Democratic Party. "There were precincts down here where there was not a single ballot cast for Kerry."
But this November is a midterm and the state doesn't even have a governor's race to draw wider interest. Sodrel, who ran his own trucking company before jumping into the ring to face Hill in 2002, said coattails don't matter, records do.
"(Hill's) voting record is still out there, and now I have one so the contrast and comparison should be easier for voters," Sodrel said. "I think that's the significant difference between this race and the other two."
At a time when Bush and the Republicans in Congress are suffering from low popularity, a record reflecting broad support for their agenda in Washington, D.C., is not going to get a lot of bonus points on the campaign trail, said Hill, who faces no primary opponent in the run-up to the Nov. 7 contest.
"The one thing I learned when I came back home ... there is a huge feeling of disconnect between the people who live here and across the country and the decision-makers in Washington," Hill said. "People really feel that the special interests are being listened to, but the people are not.
"One of the things that comes out of defeat is you try to learn from it and that's one of the things I've learned," he added.
The 9th District covers southern Indiana, stretching from Bloomington — home to Indiana University and the only part of the district that could be considered "liberal" — east to Dearborn County on the Ohio River. It then travels down the Kentucky border to Spencer County on the western side of the state.
It is a land that inspired John Cougar Mellencamp's song "Small Town," with small hamlets seemingly forgotten by time, rolling farmlands, riverside communities and above all, conservative values.
"It's kind of a upper-south, traditional, southern Democratic district in a lot of ways, but the (recent) trends have been supportive of Republicans," said Bill Kubik, political science professor at Hanover College in Indiana.
Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., says Sodrel is the perfect fit for that district.
"He will make tough decisions and will take the harder right rather than the easier wrong," he told FOXNews.com. "He often says 'right is right' and he does what is right for Indiana and the country."
"It's heavily Democratic, but conservative," said Lesley Stedman Weidenbener, who has been writing about the race for the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal. "I'm not sure Sodrel has given them a lot of reason to vote him out."
Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Sodrel "is in line with the majority of voters in the district."
On the other hand, Hill, who served two terms in office, is in the mold of the conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats. He voted for the ban on partial birth abortion and was consistently supportive of Bush's free trade agreements, a position that earned him the ire of labor unions.
Representing a district that is ideologically conservative, but traditionally Democrat isn't easy, said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who for three terms has been holding his own ground in a conservative district. He said Hill is poised for a comeback.
"I think when you are running in a conservative district, it's more important for the people to get to know you. Baron already has a leg-up in terms of people knowing him as an individual. He's not a party mouthpiece," said Matheson, also a Blue Dog.
He added that "in the current mood of the country, where there is such distaste for partisanship in Washington, I think Baron Hill is in a great position to win."
On the other hand, Eric Schansberg, a professor of economics at Indiana University at Albany, who is running as a Libertarian in the race, said voters seem unenthusiastic about either man.
Too much political grandstanding and not a lot of substantive debate on the issues important to people — like gas prices, taxes, Social Security and overspending in Washington, D.C. — is taking its toll.
"I don't think you find a lot of people who will say 'I'm a huge Hill supporter'. Same with Sodrel," said Schansberg, who argues Sodrel won in 2004 by riding Bush's coattails. "He was just a placeholder for the Republicans, just like Hill was a placeholder for the Democrats."
Nevertheless, Democrats say they are going to take advantage of the sour mood against the president and his party.
"There's a definite climate of change out there," said Wagner. "People have buyer's remorse, like, 'We sent those guys to Congress and it turned out they were more interested in serving themselves than the people.' [Hill] has a lot more to offer."
Patru said Hill had his chance, and he's finished. He pointed out that Hill works in the nation's capital at a lobbying firm and remains a consummate insider.
"We call him Baron 'Capital' Hill,' said Patru, who said Hill's record has left "a lot of openings for attack."
Hill said he has never lobbied, but has helped raise money for political action committees. His heart, as well as his family and home, were always in Indiana, he added, noting he already quit his job to campaign full-time.
"I think it's going to be a very interesting race because it's really pitting two incumbents against each other," said Kubik, who pointed to major grassroots efforts on both sides. "I think it's going to be incredibly close."