INDIANAPOLIS | Hoosiers never again would vote in a primary election for U.S. Senate candidates if the decision were up to Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller.
Zoeller is among a growing number of state's rights conservatives who favor a so-called "soft repeal" of the 17th Amendment that would empower members of the General Assembly, instead of voters, to nominate each party's U.S. Senate candidates.
Voters still would have the final say on who represents Indiana in the Senate. But Zoeller, a Republican, believes giving the General Assembly's control of selecting candidates could revive the idea that U.S. senators are ambassadors of a state's government and not entirely free agents.
"If they had to come back ... and get renominated each six-year cycle, they'll be less likely to pass statutes that stuck it to states," Zoeller said. "Would we have an unfunded mandate if they had to come back and explain it to members of the Legislature?"
Speaking earlier this year to the Federalist Society of Indianapolis, an association of politically conservative lawyers and judges, Zoeller said the proper relationship between states and the federal government was "slaughtered" when the 17th Amendment, providing for popular election of U.S. senators, was ratified in 1913.
In the century since, the federal government has come to view states as entities it controls, instead of the co-equal sovereigns the framers of the Constitution intended, Zoeller said.
That relationship urgently needs to be rebalanced to bring an end to overreaching federal regulations and unconstitutional laws, and to cut down on the number of legal challenges, he said. Zoeller said he's felt obligated to file against the federal government in the past six years.
Zoeller's proposal is a twist on an increasingly popular call among Tea Party supporters and other conservatives for a full repeal of the 17th Amendment, which would have state legislatures once again elect their state's two U.S. senators instead of state voters.
It likely also would give Republicans control of the 100-member U.S. Senate, since the GOP has a majority in 27 state legislatures compared to 17 for Democrats and six that are split between the parties.
Critics of repealing the 17th Amendment point out that state legislatures were bitterly divided by U.S. Senate elections prior to 1913.
In Indiana, ongoing attempts by Gov. Isaac Gray to get the General Assembly to elect him to the U.S. Senate resulted in the Feb. 24, 1887, "Black Day of the General Assembly," which saw state senators attack and beat Gray's proposed lieutenant governor and fire shots in the Senate chamber.
In addition, a mob of more than 600 lawmakers and outsiders fought physically for four hours before Indianapolis police brought the situation under control.
During that era, many elections for General Assembly seats turned on who the candidate would support in the U.S. Senate race, rather than focusing on pressing state issues or holding legislators individually accountable for their actions in office.
Zoeller does not oppose full repeal but believes states could get most of the benefits, without the hassle of passing a constitutional amendment, by having state legislators nominate U.S. Senate candidates and still letting voters elect the state's U.S. senators, as required by the 17th Amendment.
The change wouldn't be particularly unusual for Hoosiers.
The nomination of candidates for all Indiana statewide offices, except U.S. senator and governor, already are decided by delegates attending the biannual conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties, and not through primary elections.
Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, who this year ignored a symbolic proposal by state Sen. Jim Smith, R-Charlestown, to have Indiana rescind its approval of the 17th Amendment, said he's open to changing the rules to have the General Assemby or state party conventions pick U.S. Senate candidates.
"The key thing is making Washington pay attention to the states, and the representatives of those states pay attention to the needs of their states," Long said. "There seems to be a tone-deafness out there these days."
Indiana's next U.S. Senate contest is in 2016.