WASHINGTON – Indiana Republicans lost out when a Democrat-controlled state commission drew up new districts for the state last spring, the outcome of which is a fight between two ideologically similar Republican incumbents for the same heartland seat in the May primary.
The fifth district, occupied for nearly a decade by Rep. Steve Buyer, covered what is affectionately known as the Hoosier Heartland Corridor. It was split in several directions under the redistricting plan as was the seventh district, now held by freshman Rep. Brian Kerns.
Buyer’s home territory of White County folded into the newly created fourth district, where he is waging a political battle against Kerns. Kerns has moved from his home base in Terre Haute to run in the fourth, where more than 50 percent of his current counties will be shifted.
The old fourth congressional district, occupied by Rep. Mark Souder, has morphed into the third, which is being vacated by retiring Democrat Rep. Tim Roemer.
Neither incumbent holds sway with a majority of the Republican voters there, say observers.
"From the way I look at the district, it's brand new to both of them," said Tim Henderson, political director for the Democratic Party of Indiana. "I think like any primary where you have two people not well known with everyone, it comes down to who has the most money."
According to the last campaign finance filings, that cash-rich incumbent is Buyer, who at the end of 2001 had $324,144 cash on hand. Kerns had $70,883 in his war chest for the same period.
But Kerns is no stranger to the political game. He won the seat vacated by his boss in 2000, former GOP Rep. Edward Pease, with 60 percent of the vote. Prior to that, Kerns worked as Pease’s chief of staff and press secretary and had served on the executive committee of the Republican National Party.
But the two incumbents, who espouse the conservative, middle American values that central Indiana is known for, aren’t alone. They will be joined in the May 7 primary by four other candidates, and speculation is that whoever spends the most to get out the vote, as well as his faces and name, will have the advantage.
"It’s unusual – we don’t have a fixed incumbent who owns this seat," said Thomas Herr, a former Reform Party activist who is running on tax reform issues in the GOP primary. "This is a rare situation where we do have competition … and these guys aren’t the favorites."
Herr, an attorney, accused Buyer of being an "intense partisan" known more for his role as a House impeachment manager during the Clinton scandal than anything else. Herr said Buyer, a Persian Gulf War veteran, earned another dubious claim to fame when he suggested dropping nuclear bombs on Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Buyer and Kerns both declined comment. Kerns' press secretary said, however, that while the two seem to be cut from the same conservative cloth, Kerns has been true to his pledge to hold the line on massive federal spending, while bringing home the bacon for his constituents. Furthermore, he isn't worried about Buyer's campaign coffers.
"We know he has more money," said spokesman Stephen Lutes. "But our campaign is more about people and ideas. It's very grassroots. He may be a new member but he has great ties with the people back home."
State Sen. Mike Young, whose district includes much of the congressional scope, has also thrown his hat into the ring, and says the new district is fair game, one where he will run on an anti-Washington platform in hopes of defeating the two insiders.
"They’re really not incumbents. They have never been elected to this district," said the 15-year state legislator, an unabashed social conservative, who has led charges against homosexual marriage and abortion rights, and proudly says he has not voted for a budget since 1995 because they are not balanced.
"I’ve represented more of this district than (Kerns and Buyer)," said Young, who had $2,936 on hand at the end of the year.
Also joining the fray are Bob Smith of Indianapolis and Tim Baynard of Terra Haute.
No Democrats declared an interest in the race, and the filing period ended last month. The district’s only Democrat since 1932 has been Floyd Fithian, but that district was eliminated in 1981.
Henderson said it's unlikely any Democratic voters might come out to try and influence the race by voting in the Republican primary.
The newly created district is now a 150-mile stretch including all or most of Boone, Clinton, Hendricks, Lawrence, Montgomery, Morgan, Tippecanoe and White counties, as well as parts of Fountain, Johnson, Marion and Monroe Counties.