In Tight Fight Over Home-State Values, Gay Marriage Is Surrogate

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Some of the biggest surprises of this unusual midterm election season have come from Indiana, a usually reliable red state that is looking suddenly blue, with as many as three GOP House members in peril. National discontent with Republican rule is partly to blame, but Democrats may have also found a winning formula here and in similar states: re-discovering their populist roots.

In Indiana's Ninth District, one-term GOP incumbent Rep. Mike Sodrel is facing a stiff challenge from the man he ousted just two years ago as being too liberal for Hoosier values. Democrat Baron Hill is doing his best to keep from losing again.

The first ad to mention gay marriage here came from Hill, not Sodrel, stating: "Marriage between a man and a woman is sacred." The ad was intended to remind voters that he's one of them, despite casting a costly vote while in the House against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Sodrel attacked Hill for the vote in his successful bid in 2004, but Hill is back, arguing that he's a "values voter," too, but one who believes the decision of gay marriage is best left to states.

So far, tacking to the right is working for Hill, just as it is for many Democrats running in red states–lending credence to the notion that no matter who wins on Election Day, the Congress will remain conservative. For Hill, proving his conservative bona fides, while appealing to populist sentiment in this rural district (he has labeled Sodrel, the owner of a trucking firm, "Millionaire Mike"), has been paying off.

He led by as much as 10 percentage points early in the race. But Sodrel has fought back, questioning Hill's commitment to Indiana by making hay of Hill's full-time job in Washington the last two years working for a lobbying firm. Hill has been forced to make the fine distinction of saying he's not a lobbyist, but that he helps Indiana firms in Washington. Sodrel has also revisited his 2004 playbook, arguing that Hill is far from a true conservative, and that a vote for Hill would mean higher taxes for Hoosiers. The campaign has been intensely negative–bordering on the personal–as the two face off the third time in as many election seasons.

This, the rubber match, has been marked more by public feuding over the nature of debates than any of the debates themselves. Both took a "clean campaign pledge," but Hill accused Sodrel of breaking it, and the race has been slimed by mudslinging ever since. That may be because little separates the candidates ideologically. Both social conservatives and fiscal conservatives, Hill and Sodrel largely waged personal attacks while occasionally engaging in substantive arguments over the minimum wage, energy prices (which Sodrel correctly predicted would decline), and the war over Iraq (Hill believes in deadlines for withdrawal). Hill also tried to tie Sodrel to the Mark Foley scandal by accusing the incumbent of accepting money from GOP leaders who allegedly looked the other way when it came to Foley's indiscretions.

Going into Election Day, the two are locked in a statistical dead heat. And who wins may be determined by a third party altogether. Libertarian candidate Eric Schansberg is drawing about 5 percent of the vote after accusing both candidates of "acting like 4-year-olds." Schansberg, an economist who calls himself the only true fiscal conservative in the race, could pull votes from both candidates.

–Bret Schulte