WASHINGTON – Rep. Chris Chocola of Indiana acknowledges that the anti-Republican sentiment prevalent throughout the country "hasn't helped" him in his race for a third House term.
"Elections are about who votes and we've got a get-out-the-vote effort going since May," Chocola said. "We have a strong database of voters and we're talking to them everyday. If we don't, the mood could have an effect on this race."
The congressman said he has hosted almost 200 town hall-style meetings in the 2nd Congressional District, and in Washington "works every week to do the right things" for this mixed district of university towns, cities, rural stretches and industrial blue collar communities.
But Chocola has more than just the national mood to contend with — two local issues are stirring up voters, and he has found himself in the unenviable position of playing defense on both local and national matters.
"It has become very local," said Robert Vane, spokesman for the Indiana Republican Party.
Democratic opponent Joe Donnelly has hit Chocola for not speaking out against Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' plan for leasing out the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign investor, or on a measure passed in the all-Republican state Legislature in 2005 to put the entire state on Daylight Saving Time. Previously, the majority of the state, which rests in two time zones, did not observe the seasonal time change.
Both decisions have proven unpopular with voters, said Jim Wensits, writer for the South Bend Tribune, and "some of that resentment is going to come up" at the polling booths.
"I think people are aware that Chocola stayed out" of the local debate, Wensits said. Nonetheless, they are transferring the anger at the governor to Republicans across the board.
As a result, the north-central Indiana district race has turned into a real nail-biter.
"Here's the Republicans, they're having a difficult time with the Iraq war at the national level, and there is this stewing at the state level," said Raymond Scheele, political science professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
Chocola, who was elected in 2002 to the open seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer, said he has been preparing for this kind of battle since that first race for Congress four years ago.
"This was a district drawn as a district for Democrats," he said, pointing to the 2001 redistricting map that made the 2nd District slightly more accessible to Democrats.
Chocola won that first race 50 to 46 percent. He beat Donnelly in 2004 54 to 45 percent.
"These are always competitive races. We've been ready and prepared, but unsurprised. It is expected every two years," he said.
Still, Chocola's travails can't be overlooked in a state that voted for President George W. Bush over Democratic Sen. John Kerry 56 percent to 43 percent in 2004, elected Bush's former budget director as governor and is home to voters who by most standards are pretty conservative, particularly on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
Analysts say Democrats are in a good position to make gains in the state Legislature this year, as well as take Chocola's seat and two other Indiana congressional seats held by Republican Reps. John Hostettler in the 8th District and Mike Sodrel in the 9th District. Some chalk it up to voter disenchantment with Republicans as a whole.
"We're getting a lot of independents that went two years ago with the Bush agenda, now they have buyer's remorse and they see we need a check and balance in our system right now," said Butch Morgan, the state's 2nd District Democratic Party chairman.
Donnelly tried to make that point in 2004. Since his defeat, supporters say the local businessman has honed his campaign and expanded his name recognition. He continues to espouse the same conservative values held by his neighbors in the 2nd District.
"Guns (for), gay marriage (opposed), no timetable for Iraq," said campaign spokesman Robert Doyle. "He is someone who fits in very well with the conservative cultural background in the district. But he's also meeting (voters) where they are in respect to their pocketbook issues."
Nathan Gonzales, analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report, said the race recently moved from the tip sheet's "pure toss up" category into the "leaning Democrat" position — one of about 12 Republicans in that column.
Chocola has been behind Donnelly in most recent polls, lagging by 13 points in an Oct. 24-29 poll by Zogby International. Donnelly is up by 3 points in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polling.
Gonzales suggested that Republicans had begun to shift resources to other close races in the last few weeks of the campaign.
"I don't think there is much buzz in Washington about Chocola hanging on," he said.
Republican strategists confirm some funds have been funneled to more desperate races, but they credit that to Chocola's being independently wealthy and his strong financial lead over Donnelly. The Federal Election Commission filings from Sept. 30 showed Chocola with $1 million cash on hand compared to Donnelly, who had $333,000.
GOP sources say they are nowhere near writing Chocola off.
"We think he is positioned for re-election and that is what is reflected in what we're seeing in the polls internally," said Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Patru said he thinks Donnelly won't be able to carry his recent fortunes through the finish line.
"The sour mood among the electorate has probably made a number of races around the country more competitive, but Democrats like Joe Donnelly have been unable to seal the deal because they are wrong on tax cuts and amnesty for illegal aliens and in this case, he has that 800-pound anvil around his neck, which is a Nancy Pelosi liberal agenda," Patru said, referring to the Democratic leader set to become House speaker if the chamber changes party majority.
Donnelly's camp fires right back, however, warning that making associations to party leaders is not the route Republicans want to take. Chocola, said Doyle, is right with Bush on "bread and butter issues, things that really matter to working class people in his district."
Doyle said Chocola supports privatizing parts of Social Security and free trade agreements that local voters blame for sending jobs overseas.
"His voting record is just out of step with the people of this district," Doyle said.
Donnelly, on the other hand, is reminiscent of Roemer, the Sept. 11 commission member known as a conservative Democrat, said Morgan.
Roemer and Donnelly "both have the same family values, the same Hoosier values," he said with a nod to the popular Indiana University moniker.
But Chocola, a member of the influential Ways and Means and Budget committees, argues that he is the better fit for the district. He recently co-sponsored the bill that set into motion the building of a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
He also points to a strong conservative voting and legislative record that includes getting more armored Humvees for the troops — they are manufactured in the district — and sponsoring legislation criminalizing property destruction by environmentalists, or so-called "eco-terrorists."
"I think he represents the district pretty well," said Scheele, the professor. "He's serious, he's been back to the district quite a bit during his tenure and stays in touch."
Scheele conceded, however, that in the end Chocola may just be a victim of the national mood.
"This is a race in which people are apparently looking for a change."
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