BRIAN HOWEY: Delph’s re-election isn't foregone conclusion

2014-03-09T00:00:00Z BRIAN HOWEY: Delph’s re-election isn't foregone conclusionBy Brian Howey nwitimes.com
March 09, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Mike Delph is a Republican state senator from Carmel, but he is well known to Republicans throughout the state.

The evangelical conservative ran for secretary of state in 2002, losing at the Republican convention. Three years later, he won a caucus to replace state Sen. Murray Clark, who had been named state chairman. Over the past several years, he traveled to many of the 90 Tea Party cells across the state as he pondered a potential primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar.

Last month, Delph created a sensation at the Indiana Statehouse. After 23 House Republicans joined with Democrats to remove the controversial second sentence from HJR-3, the constitutional marriage amendment, Delph unsuccessfully attempted to restore it in the Senate. In doing so, he violated Republican caucus rules, and in a memorable press conference under the Statehouse rotunda publicly blasted Senate President David Long, alleging that he had conspired to keep HJR-3 off the 2014 ballot.

The prior weekend, Delph posted a series of attacks against legislative Republican leadership, the news media, and even churches in his district that extends from Carmel, to Zionsville and the west side of Indianapolis. “My biggest criticism is with the evangelical church. GraceCC, E91, College Park, Northview, etc. ... you all should be ashamed!” Delph said on his Twitter account.

I've been covering Indiana politics since 1985, and cannot remember an office holder castigating churches in his district.

Delph is now up for re-election, and he faces a gay Democrat, J.D. Ford. Should Delph worry about his re-election?

Conventional wisdom is that Senate District 29 is a staunchly conservative district the GOP will hold no matter what. Matt Zapfe, executive director of the Senate Majority Campaign Committee, points to 2006 when state Auditor Tim Berry (now state chairman) carried it with 58.8 percent and 59.8 percent in 2010. Delph ran unopposed in 2006 and won by about 7,000 votes in 2010.

But the district was redrawn in 2011. “Although it is a Republican-leaning district, it does not appear to be overwhelmingly Republican or socially conservative,” said Tim Henderson of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, who puts the baselines at 42 percent Democratic, 2 to 3 percent Libertarian, and 55 percent Republican.

Richard Mourdock lost the district to Sen. Joe Donnelly, not even cracking 40 percent in 2012. Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz carried the district with 50.9 percent that year, and President Barack Obama lost it by fewer than 1,000 votes.

So SD29 is Republican leaning and is fiscally conservative. But it doesn’t have the social conservative firebrand stature like some rural Senate districts have.

With Delph’s theatrics and criticism of churches in his own district, and having thoroughly angered not only Senate leadership, but many of his caucus colleagues who he accused of jumping ship on his efforts to restore HJR-3’s second sentence, it raises the specter of an isolated incumbent. But groups like the American Family Association, Eric Miller’s Advance America and the Indiana Family Institute will rally on Delph’s behalf.

“I see an opportunity with Sen. Delph’s district,” Henderson said. “He’s created an opportunity for us that might not have been there otherwise. J.D. Ford has gotten a lot of people reaching out to him from all walks of life.”

“I really think this will be the race to watch in November,” Ford told me, noting that there will be no presidential or gubernatorial race on the ballot. “There will be a clear contrast between what I stand for and what he stands for. There’s not another race as clear as this race can be.”

Ford said that being gay is only a small part of why he is running. “It’s a part of who I am,” Ford said. “It doesn't make 100 percent of who I am. I want to be a public servant and have servant leadership. It’s not what makes me a candidate for Senate. I am running on other issues.”

He did cite HJR-3 as a “clear contrast” between him and Delph. “I believe in equality for all people,” Ford explained. But he is a supporter of mass transit and adds, “Sen. Delph spent the past six weeks talking about HJR-3 and not really talking about the issues of District 29, which are jobs and economy. They want us to focus on the economy and getting people back to work.”

Delph, who declined to discuss his campaign, has a reputation as a hard-working candidate. He raised $86,319.25 in 2013 and reported $180,223 cash on hand. But as former Senate leaders Bob Garton, Larry Borst and former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson will attest, candidates with huge money advantages can be defeated.

Since Delph’s rotunda press conference, Ford has described a significant outreach in various posts on his Facebook page. His followers on Twitter have increased from 50 to 600, his Facebook page went from 700 likes to 1,200. He’s raised about $2,000.

While there appears to be a potential opportunity for Ford in this race, he will have to build and run a very disciplined campaign. He faces a vigorous incumbent with a dedicated core group of social conservative supporters.

But this race could be an interesting one to watch.

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @hwypol. The opinions are the writer's.

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