But one critical group of Indiana officeholders continues to hold out, stubbornly declining to weigh in despite Clinton and Obama entreaties and mounting pressures for them to take a side: the state’s five Democratic House members.
Since four of them are newly elected to Congress, their conspicuous and collective silence suggests personal political imperatives might be behind the reluctance to take a stand. But it also underscores what is becoming abundantly clear to those on the ground—both presidential candidates are so evenly matched in Indiana that even political pros are having trouble figuring out who has the advantage.
In the few polls taken so far, Clinton has a single-digit advantage.
The five congressmen—superdelegates all—represent a broad cross-section of Indiana, ranging from industrial Gary to big-city Indianapolis to Jeffersonville, a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky. Though none has explained it this way—they’ve shied away from public statements and none of the five returned phone calls requesting interviews for this story—each has reason to believe that their choice for the Democratic nomination could have political repercussions.
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Consider the tough situation faced by Rep. Baron Hill, who faces a bruising rematch against the former Republican incumbent he knocked off in 2006.
A Clinton vote could hurt him in two ways in his southeastern Indiana-based district. In his highly competitive congressional district, he can’t afford to lose a single vote. Yet by endorsing Clinton, he risks antagonizing the Obama supporters clustered around Indiana University in Bloomington.
Then, in November, he could take another hit if she’s the nominee, says Brian Howey, founder of Howey Politics Indiana a leading authority on Indiana politics.
“To come out for Hillary Clinton would be a real liability for him,” said Howey. “That would not play well with the independents, and even more moderate Republicans [in the 9th District].”
An Obama endorsement also has downside risk. In a district that delivered 59 percent to George W. Bush in 2004, one where the national party isn’t always an asset, getting too close to a candidate that Republicans will portray as the “most liberal senator” could prove to be a serious drag on Hill’s Election Day performance.
Two other Democratic freshmen who beat Republican incumbents in 2006, Brad Ellsworth in the Evansville-based 8th and Joe Donnelly in the South Bend-based 2nd, are likely to have easier paths to reelection but they also must nonetheless keep a sharp eye on the more conservative-minded segments of their districts. In their competitive seats, the party’s nominee could play a role in their fortunes in November.
Indiana’s other first-termer, newly-minted Rep. Andre Carson, has a different problem. He must defend the Indianapolis-based seat he won in a March special election on the same day as the May 6 presidential primary—so he can’t afford to make any intraparty enemies at the moment.
Then there is veteran Rep. Pete Visclosky. Though safely ensconced in his northwest Indiana district, there are still political crosswinds he must deal with.
Obama is expected to run well in Visclosky’s Gary-based 1st District, which is within the Chicago media market and has the highest number of African-Americans outside of the Indianapolis-based 7th. The mayor of Gary is an enthusiastic Obama supporter.
Clinton, however, has the backing of some key members of the state Democratic establishment, including state chairmn Dan Parker and Sen. Evan Bayh, not to mention the mayors of some of the larger cities in Visclosky’s blue-collar and white ethnic district—Hammond, East Chicago, Portage, Crown Point.
Parker said the value of Bayh’s backing should not be underestimated.
“He is firmly on board with Sen. Clinton,” Parker said. “He carries a lot of sway.”
Indeed, some speculate that Bayh’s role in the primary may have something to do with the House members’ uncertainty.
A former governor and two-term Democrat, Bayh’s prominent support of Clinton has prompted widespread speculation that he is on her short list of possible vice-presidential nominees. A vote for Obama, then, might be perceived as a vote to thwart the national aspirations of the state’s most popular Democrat.
“[The state’s House members] have got to be praying that this thing gets wrapped up before the superdelegates really have to weigh in,” said Howey.