By Brian Howey
BLOOMINGTON — It was his seventh and final mile, heading down South Walnut Street when a motorcyclist preparing to saddle up in a parking lot saw U.S. Rep. Baron Hill walk by.
“Thanks for all you do,” Jason Evans-Groth called out from inside his helmet.
Hill smiled, walked over and shook the man’s hand. The congressman is in a tough reelection battle in a hellish year for Democrats. The congressman had preached to his base all day that the pundits were spewing far too much gloom and doom.
A few minutes later as Hill marched on with his staff and this writer several yards behind, a man in an SUV drove by and yelled out, “You suck.”
So even in this liberal nook in the sprawling 9th CD — a true 50/50 district that has seen several races since 1994 go down to the wire — the split in opinion seemed apt.
Hill is seeking a sixth term in seven elections, losing only once in the Bush-Daniels year of 2004. He faces a different foe than perennial opponent Mike Sodrel. Republican Todd Young is pressing Hill with a tailwind behind him, though he has yet to close ranks with the embittered Sodrel after edging him out with 35 percent of the vote in the three-way May primary. “It’s a little weird,” Hill says of not running against Sodrel. “It’s an adjustment. I don’t know much about Todd Young.”
On this day the Republican National Committee targeted Hill as part of a 40-district, $22 million assault. Hill is ardently defending what has been a tumultuous two years. He broke with many Democrats in his district in April 2008, endorsing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the Indiana primary.
He staved off a fourth and final Sodrel challenge that November with 58 percent of the vote. As the Bush presidency waned, Hill voted against the TARP bailout of Wall Street, but backed the Obama stimulus in February 2009. The following fall, he voted for the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade legislation. And the capstone of controversy came with his March vote for the health reforms.
“After that vote, I sleep well at night knowing that people with pre-existing conditions can be covered, that your insurance coverage will follow you, that the doughnut hole has been fixed, that small businesses will get a tax cut for hiring people. Does anyone want to get rid of that?” Hill asked. “I can tell you who does: My opponent.”
And now on a campaign trail littered with briars, liars, fires and brimstone, Hill is battling back. He left an emphatic marker at the Indiana Democratic Convention in June when during a fiery speech, Hill boomed, “I’m glad we passed health care. They want to repeal the thing. Let’s have that debate. Bring it on!”
At that point in June, Public Opinion Strategies had Hill leading Young 41-34 percent in a poll conducted on behalf of the Republican. But more troubling were a number of Rasmussen Reports polls that revealed close to 60 percent of Hoosiers favor repealing the health reforms and about 50 percent are very motivated. But Hill had $1 million cash on hand as Young worked to replenish his primary-exhausted coffers.
Back in 1990 when State Rep. Hill challenged newly appointed U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, Hill announced he would walk the entire state from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan. With great fanfare and a stuffed folder of earned media along the way, Hill jumped into Lake Michigan at the end of the journey.
“The polls showed I was down by 34 percent,” Hill recalled. But soon after his plunge, Mason-Dixon released a poll showing him 8 percent down. He would lose to Coats by that same margin. Hill attributed the bounce to his walk.
In this campaign, he will walk 250 miles. He’s getting a ton of press coverage.
Hill walked into the Monroe County Democratic headquarters just off the Indiana University campus around 11:30 a.m. Waiting for him was Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan and about 25 activists and campaign volunteers. “These people are making 1,000 calls a night,” Hill beamed. “They are canvassing every weekend.”
“This is going to be a tough election,” Hill told the Democrats. “There’s a whole lot of hurt out there. And here’s the deal: all the polls are showing the Republicans are more energized by 20 percent. We’ve got to make a thousand calls a day,” he said.
Hill told the story of showing up at Obama headquarters in Columbus in July 2008 on a Wednesday afternoon. He found 10 volunteers making calls, including a woman who had never before been part of a campaign. Obama’s political wing — Organizing for America — has identified 330,000 Hoosiers who voted for the first time in 2008.
“Where is she today?” Hill asked. “Is she going to vote? We need to find her and get her to the polls. If we do that, we’ll be just fine.”
In the 9th, it just may come down to that.
The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com