Safety in numbers — political wonks say Visclosky’s a safe bet for reelection
By Christin Nance-Lazerus email@example.com June 23, 2014 9:08PM
Markael Watkins of Gary talks with Mark Leyva, Republican candidate for the 1st U.S. Congressioanl District seat. He'll face incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville.
Updated: July 25, 2014 6:05AM
While former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss in this month’s Virginia primary sent political shockwaves across the country, a similar fate isn’t likely in store for U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, whose Northwest Indiana district is about as safe as they come, observers say.
Several factors are at play against any Visclosky challenger, including demographics that favor Democrats, few controversial local issues, and Visclosky’s focus on local economic and environmental development projects. And, the 1st District, which encompasses Lake and Porter counties, and the western and northwestern townships of LaPorte County, is heavily Democratic.
Unless the unexpected occurs, Visclosky, D-Merrillville, is likely headed toward re-election to his 16th term in Congress, observers say.
A district’s demographics can tell you a lot about who voters pick to represent them in Congress, said Indiana University Northwest political science professor Marie Eisenstein.
As of 2011, the district had 721,586 residents. About 75 percent of the population self-identified as white, 18.4 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic, 0.8 percent Asian, 0.3 percent Native American, and 3.9 percent other.
“Data shows that African-Americans are going to vote 95 (percent) to 98 percent of the time for Democrats,” Eisenstein said. “It’s not as high with the Hispanic populations, but it’s still around 60 percent of time voting for Democrats. Obviously, we’re a very diverse district especially compared to rest of Indiana. Even a large part of the white population is elderly ‘FDR Democrats,’ so I think when I take a look at those things, I don’t see it turning in the near future.”
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, who is the outgoing Lake County Democratic Party Chairman, said Northwest Indiana’s strong union tradition aligns it with the Democratic Party.
“It’s hard-working area with a lot of unions, and it’s an urban area,” McDermott said. “Even in Indiana, the urban areas tend to vote Democratic. In 2008, Barack Obama geographically lost 95 percent of the state, but the population centers really brought him the victory.”
Since 1930, the district has picked Democrats to send to Washington, D.C. Cook Political Report currently lists the race as solid Democratic and not competitive, with the district rated as D+10.
In recent years, Visclosky usually captures about 65 (percent) to 75 percent of the vote. The closest election he had was in 2010, when he got 58 percent of the vote — which was still 20 percentage points better than his Republican challenger Mark Leyva.
Lake County Republican Chairman and County Councilman Dan Dernulc knows it’s tough sledding.
“We as Republicans understand it’s always a battle; it’s a union area and the Democrats have done a very good job capturing their base,” Dernulc said. “It’s difficult getting good candidates to run. We have a candidate and we will support him.”
to the district
Cantor lost, in part, because his Republican challenger was relentlessly attacking him on his stance on illegal immigration. Cantor had expressed an openness to immigration reform, which challenger Dave Brat hammered him about wanting amnesty for all illegal immigrants.
Eisenstein said political upsets are extremely rare, with 97 percent of incumbents prevailing. She said each district is different, so upsets tend to occur when there is a hot-button issue that resonates within the district.
“For Cantor that was the immigration issue,” Eisenstein said. “When Sen. Joe Lieberman lost the (Connecticut Democratic) primary (in 2006), it was all on his vote on the war in Iraq and how he continued to defend it. When it’s focused on one or two big issues and someone is beating the drum on it, the district is where it resonates.”
Cantor’s national presence as a member of House leadership caused some problems in his home district as well.
Visclosky has served in the House for almost 30 years, but McDermott said he’s stayed heavily involved in his home district. In particular, Visclosky has helped to spearhead with the Marquette Plan, which aims to reclaim Lake Michigan shoreline for recreation, and South Shore commuter train extension.
“He’s really more of a local guy, and he’s not really viewed as a creature of Washington like Cantor,” McDermott said.
Dernulc said manufacturing and business issues would have more resonance in Northwest Indiana.
“People in Northwest Indiana know what Pete is and they like him,” Dernulc said. “Our job focus is to do what we can to chip away at that, but when you’re well liked it’s hard.”
Leyva, for his part, believes Cantor was tossed out because people are “fed up with big government.”
“Cantor was a primary example of this trend in our country,” Leyva said. “He wasn’t a member of the Tea Party or a conservative. He lost the race by not being honest, especially on the issue of immigration.”
The Highland resident has run against Visclosky in six out of the past seven elections. But he thinks that local issues — like the recently passed income tax in Lake County — will help him in his quest to topple the incumbent.
“After 2010, I don’t think it’s an uphill climb,” Leyva said. “I think it’s a bigger sense of being upset with what’s going on, like the income tax. All we’re doing is killing hopes of better jobs, suppressing better wages, and causing higher property taxes.”
McDermott is dubious of any Republican’s chances.
“As long as Pete Visclosky holds this seat, it will impossible to unseat him if you’re a Republican,” McDermott said. “It’s one of the safest seats in America. If Pete would ever lose, it’s going to be because he lost in the Democratic primary.”
Primary vs. General election
Cantor lost to Brat, an economics professor, by 10 percentage points in the primary, but even in a heavily Republican Virginia district, that’s no guarantee of general election success.
Brat’s victory was partially due to efforts by Virginia Tea Party groups, but for all their success of knocking off establishment candidates in the primaries, their record in general elections has been dreadful. Ideological purity or rigidity may look attractive to the small percentage of voters who turnout for party primaries, but it can look radical to an electorate that represents the entire political spectrum.
Indiana has its own recent example in outgoing State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who knocked off longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in the 2012 Republican Primary. But his conservative stance on abortion deep-sixed him when he declared pregnancy as a consequence of rape was “something God intended” in a debate.
It allowed then-U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly to capture the seat by more than 100,000 votes.
McDermott said that Donnelly decided to run for the U.S. Senate seat, in part, due to Republican efforts to make his Congressional district lean more conservative in 2010.
“The last census, the Republicans drew district lines that made (Visclosky’s) district safer,” McDermott said. “They gave Michigan City, which is heavily Democratic, to Visclosky and took it away from Joe Donnelly’s 2nd District. So Donnelly files to run for Senate against Richard Lugar, who lost to Mourdock in the primary. In the end, the Republicans’ plan totally backfired.”
An unpopular candidate can provide a drag on the rest of the ticket as well, McDermott said.
“A guy like Mourdock hurt the whole ticket; it hurt (Gov. Mike) Pence, and if there had been another week of campaigning, it might have been worse for the Republicans,” McDermott said. “We had a situation like that with Carol Ann Seaton’s issues (in 2010), and it hurt the whole ticket — the sheriff on down the ballot. You get these crazy, extreme candidates and they can hurt the whole ticket.”