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Friday, December 2, 2022

Grappling for a Seat

Southwest Indiana’s notorious “Bloody 8th” congressional district has seen more than its fair share of good fights in the last 22 years, ever since the late Democrat Frank McCloskey emerged the winner over Republican challenger Rick McIntyre in a bitterly contested match in 1984.

A decade later, McCloskey was one of 34 Democratic incumbents defeated during the 1994 Republican Revolution, which ended 40 years of Democratic dominance in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It was a young unknown Posey County engineer who toppled McCloskey. Ever since, the quirkily independent GOP Rep. John Hostettler has fended off opponents by relying heavily on his own network of loyal grassroots supporters culled from evangelical Christians and a strong conservative base.

Yet after six terms in Congress, Hostettler remains an irresistible target for Democrats. Four of his last six opponents have outspent him – the last by more than $1 million – and each time they come close: Hostettler has never won more than 55 percent of the vote.

Through the years, Democrats have tried to make much of Hostettler’s voting record with its seemingly hyper-focus on social issues and his headline-getting behavior, including the illegal weapons possession charge from two years ago, after he tried to board a flight in Louisville with a loaded 9 mm Glock pistol in his bag.

Hostettler has capitalized on his faith, even when it offends. During a debate on the House floor in June of 2005, he declared: “Like a moth to a flame, the Democrats can’t help themselves when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians.” His words were immediately stricken from the Congressional Record after his colleagues objected, but many of Hostettler’s supporters around the country applauded.

Many have tried to take Hostettler down, including now Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel who ran against the congressman 10 years ago. Two years ago, former Clinton aide and Boston Celtics scout Jon Jennings came to town with a bundle of money to take on Hostettler. He was soon dubbed a liberal-loving carpetbagger. After his defeat, Jennings moved back to Massachusetts, where in December he was named state director for failed presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. John Kerry. 

Now a new contender has emerged, and political pundits on both sides of the partisan fence say the Democrats have never fielded a candidate with quite as strong a profile as Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth. The 47-year-old Ellsworth is a law-and-order hometown boy with bipartisan appeal and good looks, possessed with the kind of conservative social views favored by 8th District voters. It doesn’t hurt that he comes into the campaign with a ten-to-one cash-on-hand advantage and some serious momentum picked up by his high-profile presence after the deadly Nov. 6 tornado. He remains seemingly untarnished by a strange “scandal,” first reported by the Evansville Courier & Press, involving his college-age daughter and an online networking site.

Once again, political eyes across the nation are on this race. In February, The Washington Post declared the Ellsworth-Hostettler race as a key one for the Democratic Party as it positions itself to regain control of the House. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call echoed the sentiment in a February story headlined: “Indiana’s 8th: For the Democrats, It’s Now or Never.” That’s no exaggeration, says local Democrat and attorney Pat Shoulders, who told Evansville Living: “If we don’t beat Hostettler this time, we should begin renaming post offices for him throughout the (8th) District.” Shoulder’s on-air partner, Republican and attorney Les Shively – who co-hosts WNIN’s Shively & Shoulders – concurs: “This will probably be the closest election Hostettler has ever had.”

The Bloody 8th District

This congressional district we call our own earned the nickname the “Bloody 8th” more than 20 years ago, in the midst of a bitter battle that didn’t start until election night. In 1984, 8th District Rep. Frank McCloskey, a liberal Democrat from Bloomington, faced conservative challenger Rick McIntyre. On election night, two of the three major television networks declared McIntyre the winner, but no election official did. The initial count put McCloskey ahead by 72 votes, but the “victory” didn’t last long after election workers in Gibson County discovered a tabulation error. A judge ordered a recount, which put McIntyre in the lead. That set off a round of protests, more calls for recounts in other counties, and a series of chaotic events, including tossed ballots and a decision by the then-Secretary of State, a Republican, to certify McIntyre as the winner, despite other recounted tallies that put McCloskey in the lead. That escalated an already nasty fight that was gaining national attention. Both McCloskey and McIntyre declared themselves the winners. McIntyre headed to Washington, D.C. to be sworn in and took a seat in the House of Representatives. Before he could be sworn in, the U.S. House Majority leader, a Democrat, asked his colleagues to declare the 8th District seat officially vacant. They did. It only got messier from there. The House decided to appoint a three-man task force to conduct a recount of the 8th District election. But the task force’s make-up – two Democrats to one Republican – drew howls of protest. Meanwhile, back in the 8th District, county election officials battled each other for control. There wasn’t any blood drawn, at least not that was reported. But in the five long months the dispute wore on, there were plenty of verbal punches thrown. In the end, the House voted to seat McCloskey after declaring him the winner by just four votes. The Republicans’ call for a special election, arguing the recounts had become so tainted by partisan bickering to be fair, had fallen on deaf ears. McCloskey was sworn in on May 1, 1985 – six months after the election. Most of the Republicans in the House walked out. McIntyre would go on to resume his law practice, and become a judge-advocate in the military. McCloskey would serve in the House until 1994, when he was unseated by then-challenger John Hostettler. McCloskey died in 2003, at the age of 64 from cancer.

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