Being the Congressman from Indiana's 9th District is a little like playing political Twister. You've got to keep your left foot firmly planted to the northwest, in your largest city, Bloomington, with its young, Democratic-leaning population around Indiana University. At the same time, you've got to reach southeast with your right hand, to Clark County and its Republican-trending Louisville suburbs along the Ohio River. Then there are the descendants of the proslavery Butternuts in the rural counties to the southwest of the district, where you keep your cultural right foot for balance. And if that's not challenging enough, with your left hand, you see if you can reach out to blue collar workers in the northeast towns bordering Ohio.
For 34 years the consummate political diplomat Lee Hamilton managed the feat, and since his retirement, Baron Hill, the Democratic incumbent, has performed the 9th District gyration. He's succeeded at it for five terms, with one break from 2004 to 2006 when he lost to his perennial challenger, Republican Mike Sodrel. This year Hill has a new, young challenger in Todd Young, a Bloomington lawyer with the backing of the antitax Club for Growth, and the race is one of the tightest in the country.
It is a test of survival not just for Hill but for endangered Blue Dog Democrats nationwide. The culturally conservative centrist coalition, long key to Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, faces a threat to its ranks unlike any other group, with 22 of its 54 House members in toss-up races, and others headed for likely losses.
Young's playbook is both predictable and effective. He's hit Hill hard on his vote supporting President Obama's health reform bill and his vote in favor of Nancy Pelosi's now defunct cap-and-trade energy bill. Young has been backed by the Republicans' House campaign operation, which is running an ad targeting the district's blue collar workers, who make up 32% of the district, that accuses Hill of being economically helpful to China at Indiana's expense.
For his part, Hill is relying on tried and true campaign winners, focusing on popular programs that Young and the Club for Growth oppose. In their debate in mid-October, Hill demanded that Young sign a pledge not to cut Social Security, and Young declined. The Service Employees International Union, one of the biggest spenders this campaign season, has run ads targeting Young's support of a national sales tax.
Throughout the campaign, Hill has leveraged his incumbent status for a fundraising advantage, bringing in a total of $1.86 million for the cycle. But Young has boosted his take toward the finish, pulling in $762,000 in the third quarter, compared with just $433,000 for Hill. Hill still has more cash on hand than Young, $688,000 to $597,000, but the two now have a comparable burn rate.
Given the apparent momentum shift in fundraising and the leads Republicans have been able to open up in close House races elsewhere around the country, it is somewhat surprising that this contest is as close as it is. Most of the top race watchers rate it a straight toss-up, the polls have it dead even, and the congressional campaigns for both parties are still pouring in money, apparently convinced their candidate can still pull it out.
Hill has a history of doing so against Sodrel: he beat the Republican challenger three out of four times, losing only in the Bush re-election year of 2004 by fewer than 2,000 votes. But this could be another coattail election in Indiana, as the popular former Senator Dan Coats seems headed to an easy victory over Congressman Brad Ellsworth in the race to fill retiring Senator Evan Bayh's seat. Young could tag along for the ride with just enough voters to make the difference in which case he'll have to prove that a committed conservative can also be a consummate contortionist.