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GOP Angles for Early Coup in Bellwether Indiana

Conservative Indiana provided the first sign of a Democratic sweep in 2006 when Republicans lost three House seats in the Hoosier state, then glumly watched dozens more fall as polls closed across the country.

Now a resurgent Republican Party wants to rerun the same script with a distinctly different ending, aiming to recapture dozens of seats it lost in 2006 and 2008 and putting junior Democrats under political duress from New Hampshire to New Mexico.

And Indiana, where unemployment is measured at 10.2 percent and newspapers run page after dreary page of home foreclosure notices, could again be an early indicator. Republicans appear to be on their way to reclaiming one of the three seats they lost in 2006 and are mounting a strong challenge for a second.

They entertain hopes of taking back the third, as well, although their candidate, state lawmaker Jackie Walorski, is conservative enough to accuse the National Rifle Association of being irresolute.

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"The economy hasn't gotten better. A lot of things haven't changed in Indiana, and I think that may be what's driving some of these elections," said Chris Chocola, a former congressman who lost his seat in 2006 and now heads the conservative Club for Growth in Washington. "If anything, things have gotten worse ... so I think there's a little buyer's remorse."

Counting the Indiana seats held by Reps. Joe Donnelly, Baron Hill and Brad Ellsworth, who is now running for the Senate, Democrats took 55 districts away from the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 as they built their majority and then strengthened it. Some of them are all but certain to fall to Republicans this fall, and the millions of dollars in campaign advertising now pouring into many of the rest are evidence of renewed political significance.

A majority of the 55 stretch across the nation's northern tier, from New Hampshire to Michigan. More than one-quarter are in New York (6) Pennsylvania (5) and Ohio (4). There also are four in Florida and three each in Arizona and Virginia.

The political particulars vary, but the overall drift is the same as in Indiana — Democrats under pressure.

In Alabama, Rep. Bobby Bright, seeking separation from his party, announced recently he won't vote to re-elect Nancy Pelosi as House speaker if he earns a new term to the seat he won in 2008.

In Ohio, Democrats concede privately they are likely to lose the seats that Reps. Steve Driehaus and Mary Jo Kilroy won in 2008. Both parties are advertising heavily in districts where Rep. Zach Space is seeking a third term and Rep. John Boccieri a second.

Both parties also are investing in a pair of Arizona races, one involving Rep. Harry Mitchell, first elected in 2006, the other where Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is running for re-election for the seat she first won in 2008.

In Indiana, Republican ambitions run well beyond House seats.

Ellsworth trails former Sen. Dan Coats in opinion polls in their race for a Senate seat.

Republicans, who control the state Senate, hope to pick up the three seats needed for a majority in the Indiana House as well. If successful, they would control reapportionment of the state's congressional districts in 2011 and strengthen their political position for a decade to come.

Democrats are guilty of "extremism of national policy in the last year or two. People here have really recoiled from it," Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels said in an interview. He cited as examples economic stimulus legislation that passed Congress in 2009, this year's health care bill and an energy measure that cleared the House last year.

The seat Ellsworth is vacating in the southwestern part of the state is widely viewed as a lost cause for the Democrats. Their candidate, state Rep. Trent Van Haaften, is up against Republican Larry Bucshon, a cardiac surgeon making his first run for office.

In an adjacent district, Republican Todd Young opposes Democratic Rep. Baron Hill in an area that is so politically divided that the incumbent won the seat, lost it and won it back, all since 1998. Polls make it a close race, and both parties are advertising on television.

The outcome of Walorski's challenge to Donnelly in north-central Indiana may help define the limits of any Republican election-year wave.

Donnelly, a two-term Democrat, is campaigning as an independent lawmaker who opposed one of Obama's signature bills and advertises against it as "Nancy Pelosi's energy tax on Hoosier families."

Like Democrats elsewhere, he assails his rival as extreme.

But the National Republican Congressional Committee cast him as anything but independent in a television ad that began shortly after Labor Day. It said Donnelly voted with Pelosi 88 percent of the time, and supported a "Wall Street bailout," the economic stimulus measure and health care legislation.

Donnelly declined numerous requests for an interview.

Walorski, a 47-year-old state lawmaker, has unquestioned conservative credentials, Sarah Palin's endorsement and seemingly boundless energy. In one recent evening, she appeared at a dinner held by anti-abortion activists, at a Baptist Church where the audience cheered the idea that they could displace Pelosi, and then the Elkhart Rifle and Pistol Club

There, she said she wants to defund the health care bill, impose term limits on lawmakers and put a freeze on federal spending with "no tax increases, no exceptions."

She speaks rapidly, and her targets include the Obama administration, Pelosi, Donnelly and the National Rifle Association. "I co-authored the lifetime handgun permit, which I hope everyone has in their pocket. I have one in my pocket," she said, adding that the NRA refused to help pass the measure in the Legislature.

Local unemployment is about 13 percent, and when she says the economy is "going to hell in a handbasket," Jon Witmer, breaks in from the audience: "I think the handle's broke off that handbasket."

As the men in the audience walk to their cars afterward, they offer praise.

"Jackie's the real deal. She tells you what she's thinking" said Blake Doriot, a resident of nearby Syracuse.

In Indiana, as elsewhere, Democrats won't concede publicly that any seats are lost. But the changed atmosphere is evident.

Four years ago, in mid-October, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel visited Indianapolis as chairman of the House campaign committee to generate support for Donnelly, Hill and Ellsworth.

Nothing similar is scheduled for this fall. Vice President Joe Biden plans a fundraiser on Thursday for Ellsworth. But in a year when many Indiana Democrats want to minimize ties to their party, it will be held hundreds of miles away, in Washington, D.C.

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