Former Incumbent Takes on Seat Holder in Indiana Rematch
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JIM LEHRER: Now, a Choices `06 report. It`s on Indiana`s Ninth House District. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.
KWAME HOLMAN: The fall festival in Comisky (ph) brings out hundreds from the local communities of southern Indiana, but this also is one of the most closely contested congressional districts in the country, so the festival also brings out the major party candidates, even though it`s only September.
INDIANA CITIZEN: Hi there. Hi.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Mike Sodrel, a local businessman who built a large trucking company from the ground up, is finishing his first-term representing Indiana`s Ninth District, after winning a razor-thin victory two years ago.
REP. MIKE SODREL (R), Indiana: I think the average person here in the Ninth District is just starting to become a little interested.
KWAME HOLMAN: So Sodrel already is running hard, knowing that polls nationally show that voters focus most of their displeasure about the Iraq war, gas prices, health care, and a not-so-great economy on President Bush and the Republican majority in Congress.
HELEN HASHMAN, Indiana Citizen: It`s a worrisome time. There`s just so much going on, with the car bombings and all of that, that it just worries me.
BILL KENDRICK, Indiana Citizen: I don`t think the economy is good. The stock market`s going up, but I still don`t think the economy is good. And I think the Democrats could do a better job with it.
REP. MIKE SODREL: The problem I have with both of these programs is they draw a bright line some place and say, “Well, if you`re over here, you get something. And if you`re over here, you get nothing.”
KWAME HOLMAN: Sodrel says he knows the anti-incumbent feelings will make his job a little harder this time.
REP. MIKE SODREL: I trust the voters will make the right decision in November. I think they`re just kind of starting this process right now thinking about, “Well, is this the fault of this president, this Congress, or, you know, what about my member? Is he part of the solution or part of the problem?” You know what I mean? I think they`re just now starting to go through that process.
KWAME HOLMAN: The people of the Ninth District inhabit mostly small town and rural agricultural communities along Indiana`s border with Kentucky.
BARON HILL (D), Indiana Congressional Candidate: It`s been about five polls taken here lately, and I`m ahead in all of them.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Baron Hill held the district seat for six years before losing to Sodrel in 2004. Now, he wants it back.
BARON HILL: Hello there. How are you?
KWAME HOLMAN: Hill, once a local high school basketball star, who, at 53, still runs several miles a day, is running in an area that overwhelmingly voted for President Bush in 2004 but elected Democratic congressmen for decades before Sodrel.
BARON HILL: I hope you`ll vote for me in November.
INDIANA CITIZEN: I will.
KWAME HOLMAN: But he says neither the Ninth Democratic history nor the national polls suggesting Republicans may be on the ropes make him overconfident about their rematch.
BARON HILL: This district is always on the margins, and it`s going to be close every single time. You don`t have Republicans dominating; you don`t have Democrats dominating. And so you would think that it would be easy for me, since it is a marginal district, because of what`s going on in the world. But it`s not going to be easy; it`s going to be difficult to get this seat back.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, Hill says he senses voters` desire for change and draws on it every chance he gets.
BARON HILL: My basic message is this: If you think the country is moving in the right direction, you don`t want change, you want a member of Congress in the Ninth District in Indiana who is going to basically vote for the president 96 percent of the time, then I would agree vote for my opponent. But if you want change, and want to move this country in a different direction, and somebody who`s going to be an independent voice for southern Indiana, I`m your man.
KWAME HOLMAN: Talking to supporters, he continues to hit on the overall wave of public unhappiness about the Iraq war.
BARON HILL: When I hear people talk -- well, the Republicans at least -- talk about the Democrats won`t stand up for any ideas, that`s a bunch of malarkey, folks. Let me tell you what we stand for: We stand for getting our boys and girls out of Iraq sooner rather than later and doing in an honorable way. And we can do this.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hill says almost everywhere he goes he hears from Republican voters that they are ready to change.
Victory for Democrats
INDIANA CITIZEN: I think the Democrats have a chance. I`m going to vote straight Democrat. I don`t care who knows it. I did vote for Bush.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Democrats hope two other close House races in Indiana, the Second and Eighth Districts, could combine with the Ninth`s to signal a nationwide wave of Democratic victories.
But Brian Howey, who produces an influential Web site on Indiana politics from his home in Indianapolis, says that would mean upending voter support for Washington`s Republican leadership.
BRIAN HOWEY, Howey Political Report: It`s going to be kind of an emotional, personal journey for a lot of people. Do they leave the president? Do they leave an earthy guy like Mike Sodrel because they`re so upset about what they`re seeing out of Baghdad or what they`re paying at the pump? And I think that`s what this election is going to come down to.
REP. MIKE SODREL: Mike Sodrel, hi.
KWAME HOLMAN: Indeed, Mike Sodrel and the Republican Party still have a strong base of support in the Ninth District.
INDIANA CITIZEN: I`m a Democrat, but he`s got my vote.
REP. MIKE SODREL: Well, thank you.
ANNETTE KIMBERLIN, Indiana Citizen: I like Mr. Sodrel, so I have no problem with him. I think he`ll get elected again. I like Mr. Bush. You know, I know that things are bad. Things are starting to look better, I think, with the gas prices -- and I hope it`s not because of the election -- but they are looking good.
KWAME HOLMAN: While rallying his troops before a door-to-door walk, the first-term incumbent, Sodrel, makes his own claim for change.
REP. MIKE SODREL: Well, somebody the other day said, "Well, people of this district want change." I said, "I am change."
Emphasizing the difference
KWAME HOLMAN: Sodrel makes sure his supporters know about the differences between himself and his Democratic opponent.
REP. MIKE SODREL: He said that marriage is sacred, but he voted against the marriage protection amendment. I voted for the marriage protection amendment. He thinks people should respect the flag, but he voted three times against the flag protection amendment. I voted for the flag protection amendment.
INDIANA CITIZEN: Good morning. You look familiar.
REP. MIKE SODREL: I`m Mike Sodrel.
INDIANA CITIZEN: I see you on television.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sodrel is taking that message from neighborhood to neighborhood.
INDIANA CITIZEN: If you believe the way we believe, we`d sure appreciate you voting for him. And we`re just for traditional values.
INDIANA CITIZEN: I think that`s a good thing.
REP. MIKE SODREL: I`d be happy if you`ve got any questions. I`d answer them or...
INDIANA CITIZEN: I hate to say this, but are you a Democrat or a Republican?
REP. MIKE SODREL: I`m a Republican.
INDIANA CITIZEN: Oh, good. OK.
KWAME HOLMAN: And he doesn`t complain about the political environment he finds himself in.
REP. MIKE SODREL: I think it`s not as bad now as it was two months ago. I mean, I really felt more of that uneasy feeling about something really isn`t going right here a couple of months back. It seems to me that it`s gotten better.
I remember getting up in the morning and saying, "Gee wiz, I wish I (inaudible)." That`s just part of it. I mean, it`s part of governance. So, hey, I`m OK with it. We`ll run as hard as we can in the environment we have to run.
The president of the United States, the honorable George W. Bush.
KWAME HOLMAN: Unlike some Republicans, Sodrel has not run away from President Bush, who, along with the vice president and first lady, have appeared with him in Indiana.
REP. MIKE SODREL: He`s my president. You know, I may have to tell people, I don`t agree with him all the time. And when I don`t agree with him, I don`t mind telling him I don`t agree with him. My wife and I have been together 38 years now, and we don`t agree on everything, but she`s my wife. He`s my president.
President Bush's role
KWAME HOLMAN: At this time of year in Indiana, Friday nights are reserved for high school football. Here in Floyds Knobs, many voters credit Sodrel for his loyalty to the president.
ROEBIN TYLER, Indiana Citizen: I do appreciate his backing the president and doing that. So that`s probably at this stage of the game would be the main thing that would be having me to vote for him.
BARON HILL: What`s your name?
INDIANA CITIZEN: Catherine Farrell (ph).
BARON HILL: Hi, Catherine. Nice to meet you.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the outcome between Sodrel and Hill this year could portend whether Democrats take majority control of the House of Representatives. Hill has tried to ignite his campaign with an appearance by former President Clinton, and Hill says he feels a different atmosphere from two years ago.
BARON HILL: There`s just some angst out there that people have, and that`s the reason why I think they`re looking towards the Democrats. I think, in the final analysis, they`re going to say, "You know, I don`t know if the Democrats can do it any better than the Republicans or not, but let`s give them a chance."
KWAME HOLMAN: Brian Howey says whatever happens in Indiana will send an early signal about the rest of the country.
BRIAN HOWEY: You`ve got to remember that the Indiana polls are some of the first that close in the country. They`ll shut down at 6:00 p.m. And I fully expect that, you know, by 7:00, 7:30, 8:00 on election night, you`re probably going to know where these three congressional races are stacking up. And I do think that that may, you know, be the first inklings of the bellwether of what kind of change is going to happen here.
KWAME HOLMAN: Right now, many Indiana voters are paying more attention to football than politics, but soon an expected explosion of political ads will signal them that November is inching closer and closer.