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INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s two most competitive congressional districts are both open seats in 2020 and are mirror images of each other. The 1st District being vacated by 18-term U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky is in the heart of the state’s industrialized northwest Region.
The 5th CD spans northward from Indianapolis, including the doughnut suburbs of Zionsville, Carmel, and Fishers, as well as Anderson, Marion and suburban Kokomo. Four term Republican Rep. Susan Brooks declined to seek another term.
According to the 2017 Cook Partisan Index, the 1st is +9% Democratic (meaning a generic Democrat candidate in a normal election cycle could expect a 9% plurality) while the 5th is +9 Republican. These are the two most competitive districts in Indiana. The current maps drawn in 2011 stand to make history. If the 1st and 5th CDs stay in their current party columns next November, these maps will be the first time in the television age when not a single Hoosier congressional seat changed parties.
The 2020 election cycle looks anything but normal; it is shaping up to be an intensely fought referendum on President Trump, with high turnout on both sides. In a historical first, Trump will be the first impeached president seeking a second term. It is Trump’s impeachment that has the potential to distort and contort down ballot races like these in the 1st and 5th CDs.
Usually when the jobless rate is still low and the Dow near historic highs, President Trump should be at or above 60% approval. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, 34% called 2019 one of their best years, an all-time high, while 40% see bright prospects for 2020. But Trump’s job approval stands at an anemic 44%, while 48% said they are “certain” to vote against him.
This polarized partisan divide appears to be evolving more on Trump’s style points than actual policy.
Look no further than the open 1st and 5th CD races to see how Trump’s impeachment could have unintended consequences. Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., said in a Northwest Indiana Times interview earlier this month that censuring President Trump, as the late Sen. Richard Lugar urged against President Clinton in his 1998-99 impeachment, would serve the same practical purpose as impeachment while dividing the country far less. “If this is all going to end up, ultimately, just partisan politics — the Democrats in the House are going to vote to impeach and the Republicans in the Senate are going to vote to acquit — then why are we going through this exercise?” McDermott asked.
When a primary rival, State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, assailed his position, it prompted the mayor to change course. “Would I vote against impeachment because I think censure is the right answer? And it’s no,” McDermott said. That prompted Reardon to say, “I’m glad that the mayor of Hammond has finally realized that in a democracy we have a responsibility to question and hold our leaders accountable for their actions for the good of the nation.”
Other candidates in the 1st CD Democratic field took hard lines, which are reflective of predominant politics there. “As a member of Congress, I’m not going to sit idly by as the president tramples on our democratic institutions,” said Valparaiso attorney Jim Harper. Gary businesswoman Sabrina Haake added, “I can’t be strong enough in support of getting this jackass out of office. To me, if trying to sell our military aid of $350 million for a personal favor and a political favor is not impeachable, then nothing is.”
The Republican 5th CD, which hasn’t elected a Democrat since Jim Jontz won the seat a generation ago, requires Democrats to take a more nuanced approach.
Former Democratic legislator and 2016 Lieutenant Governor nominee Christina Hale didn’t explicitly say whether she would have stood with her Democratic colleagues had she been serving in the House rather than running for it.
“National security is of primary importance to all Americans,” Hale said in a statement to Howey Politics Indiana. “My dad, a longtime prosecuting attorney, taught me long ago that no one is above the law, not even our president, and that transparency in government is essential to well-functioning democracy. Americans across our country are seriously concerned, and we need to see this impeachment process through in the Senate, and give these articles a fair and open hearing. That said, we must not allow Congress to be distracted from working on the everyday issues affecting people here in Indiana, like making health care more affordable, lowering the cost of prescription drugs and focusing on education and employment.”
It seems that Hale favors impeachment as all but three current House Democrats did, but her spokesman, Andy Bilyk, would not say whether Hale would have cast a vote for impeachment. He repeatedly referred to the statement.
Her opponent for the Democratic nomination, 2018 5th CD nominee Dee Thornton, was more straightforward about impeachment. “It’s about protecting the Constitution,” said Thornton, a former Xerox executive. “It should not be a partisan vote. It’s a vote on principle.”
Rev. Micah Beckwith who is seeking the 5th CD GOP nomination, said impeachment will turn out to be a political boost for Trump and other Republicans. “It’s going to catapult [Trump] to an overwhelming victory in 2020.”
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. HPI Washington correspondent Mark Schoeff Jr., contributed to this column. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.