EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Indiana voters sent a resounding no-confidence vote to Republicans in Washington Tuesday, ousting congressional incumbents in the 2nd, 8th and 9th Districts and giving Democrats three of the 15 seats they needed to take control of the U.S. House.
"All across our state, Hoosiers have voted for change," said Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, who was not up for re-election. "We voted for change not just to change the person going to Washington, but to change the way Washington works."
The turnover was unusual for Indiana, where congressional incumbents are generally safe. Since 1994, only three incumbents had lost their seats.
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Brian Vargus, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, attributed the GOP losses this year to a combination of an anti-incumbency mood, a general dissatisfaction with Republicans and the war in Iraq.
"The war pervaded everything," Vargus said. "It was just a nasty, sort of irritating itch. ... You remember the famous saying that all politics is local? In this case, there was enough of a natural unease about the direction of the country and Congress in general."
In southern Indiana's embattled 9th District, Baron Hill squeaked past Rep. Mike Sodrel despite millions national Republicans poured into the race.
Hill, a former representative who lost to Sodrel by about 1,400 votes in 2004, had 48.6 percent of the vote with 87 percent of precincts reporting, according to unofficial results tabulated by The Associated Press. Sodrel had 46.9 percent.
"For the last six years, this has been one-party rule," Hill told supporters Tuesday night. "When you've got one-party rule for too long, trouble starts, and that's what's going on in Washington."
Sodrel said backlash against Republicans and discontent with the war might have played a role in his defeat. But he defended the U.S. presence in Iraq.
"I think we need to wake up and smell the coffee — these folks intend to kill us," Sodrel said. "This is not a criminal activity, this is a war. And if America is not committed and is not willing to prosecute the war, we're in serious trouble."
Chocola, a millionaire business executive, also blamed a "tough environment" for his rematch loss to Democrat Joe Donnelly in northern Indiana's 2nd District.
Chocola received 47 percent of the vote to Donnelly's 52 percent in a district marred by voter dissatisfaction over the state's move to statewide daylight-saving time and Gov. Mitch Daniels' decision to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign company.
"This was about changing America, and tonight we changed America," Donnelly said.
The largest margin of victory went to Brad Ellsworth, the popular Vanderburgh County sheriff who gained national attention as he helped lead recovery efforts after a deadly tornado in Evansville a year ago.
Ellsworth campaigned in the 8th District as a conservative Democrat, tapping Republican Rep. John Hostettler's constituency as he captured 62 percent of the vote with 67 percent of precincts reporting.
Ellsworth told cheering supporters he hoped to make them proud.
"You said you want to bring our troops home, to do it smart, to do it wisely. You want a country that is making friends in the world, not making more enemies," he said. "It's time for us to deliver."
Ellsworth capitalized on a low-key campaign by Hostettler in the district known as the "Bloody 8th" for its history of close, contentious races.
Hostettler, who never received more than 53 percent of the vote in six elections, thanked campaign workers, hugged his wife and children and wiped tears from his youngest son's face.
"Tonight, voters in the 8th District of Indiana voted for change and they voted overwhelmingly," he told supporters. "I have been very honored and blessed to serve the 8th District of Indiana for the past 12 years."
Hostettler, a traditionally weak fundraiser, received more than $1.8 million from the National Republican Congressional Committee, part of $5.5 million the party pumped into the three races.
But the money didn't matter to voters like Marine Reserve Lance Cpl. Nolan Schemel, 20, of Evansville, who visited Ellsworth's headquarters to show his support for Democrats trying to steer the country out of Iraq.
"Politics has everything to do with what's going on in Iraq," said Schemel, who returned in October from a seven-month deployment in Fallujah. "It's like a stalemate, and somebody needs to make a decision."