Calling In the Pros vs. Do-It-Yourself

By Chris Cillizza and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 22, 2006

EVANSVILLE, Ind., Sept. 21 -- Ask Karen Hammonds the name of Rep. John Hostettler's campaign manager and she answers simply, "The congressman."

How about the pollster? "The congressman." Media consultant? "The congressman." Press secretary? Yep, that's right: "The congressman."

Surely, a busy member of Congress doesn't have time to shoot his own television ads? Oh, no, Hammonds explains with an ever-present smile. Instead, Hostettler writes them and delivers them to a local marketing agency, which produces them to his exact specifications.

Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.) gets a little help from professionals such as Hammonds, who answers phones, organizes volunteers and hands out yard signs. She is among Hostettler's top campaign hands. She takes a salary in even-numbered years but works gratis in odd ones. She also happens to be his sister -- one of eight siblings who form the core of the incumbent's political organization.

A few blocks from the cramped Hostettler headquarters, the scene is quite different at the headquarters of Democratic challenger Brad Ellsworth. The Democrat, a local sheriff, is trying to beat the incumbent's down-home tactics with the sort of modern campaign apparatus that these days can be found in virtually any competitive district.

Campaign manager Jay Howser tracks the ups and downs of the race from a large corner office. Several aides bang away on their new Dell computers, while one sits in the corner tracking ads in the Terre Haute and Evansville television markets with side-by-side TiVos. The press secretary has a BlackBerry. Like most congressional campaigns, the Democrat's relies heavily on outsiders. Howser cut his teeth in Missouri politics; spokesman Mike Weinberg was flown in from Arizona.

While Hostettler's Mayberry-style campaigns have delivered victories for the past decade, this November will be his most difficult test by far. Ellsworth, a social conservative, leads the incumbent in polling and fundraising.

Polling suggests Hostettler is in trouble. A series of independent polls have shown him trailing Ellsworth by four to six percentage points.

At the end of June, Hostettler had raised $295,000 for the race and had $195,000 remaining in his coffers. Ellsworth had collected upwards of $1 million by that time and showed more than $675,000 in the bank.

But raw numbers may underestimate Hostettler's chances on Nov. 7. Hammonds, who has been involved in all but one of her brother's seven congressional campaigns, says he is regularly behind in the polls around this time but always pulls it out. She believes his ability to come from behind is rooted in the volunteer network Hostettler has built over the past 12 years. What began as a strictly family affair has grown to include a volunteer coordinator in each of the district's 18 counties.

Howser acknowledged that Hostettler has a "more organic, through-the-church, small-town" turnout network than most representatives'. But he added that the real reason Hostettler keeps winning elections is cash infusions from national Republicans. This year, as before, much of that money buys ads attacking the Democratic candidate. The National Republican Congressional Committee has been on television in the district since June and has already spent north of $1 million on ads, warning that if Ellsworth goes to Washington he will be a vote for liberals such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is also spending heavily on their own ads, alleging that Hostettler is beholden to Big Oil.

A visit to the Republican's office highlights how he has kept a distinctly Hoosier profile even after a dozen years in Washington. Pictures of the congressman and a framed copy of the Evansville Courier & Press trumpeting his 1994 primary victory dot the walls. The other employees, Hammonds said, are two "data-entry ladies" and Stan Barringer, the opposition-research director. Barringer has been busy. Several binders that sit on a shelf in the office carry printed labels such as "budget," "China" and "anti-Christian." There is even a binder labeled with the name of Ellsworth's daughter. The sheriff's 19-year-old stumbled into controversy last year when she was shown in photographs drinking beer.

Hostettler's refusal to mold himself into a conventional politician is part of his appeal. But where "one-of-a-kind" crosses the line into "eccentric" is a matter of debate in southern Indiana. In 2002, Hostettler started a firestorm when he allegedly sought to link abortions to breast cancer in a meeting with a group of female survivors of the disease. He took issue with the women's description of the gathering. Two years later, Hostettler was detained at the Louisville airport for carrying a loaded gun in his briefcase. Last October, Hostettler was one of a handful Republicans to oppose a bill that provided aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina, a vote put into stark relief when a deadly tornado struck southern Indiana a month later.

"That type of stuff builds up," said Jonathan Weinzapfel, the mayor of Evansville and the 1996 Democratic nominee against Hostettler.

The political environment in Indiana is not doing Hostettler any favors, either. The GOP brand here has been badly scuffed, as much by local controversies as by furor surrounding President Bush and the Iraq war. Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., a Republican, infuriated many people by pushing to privatize the state's toll roads -- and turn them over to two foreign companies.

In past years, Hostettler has been helped by the opposition. Although Democrats have long regarded him as vulnerable, the party has never found the right person to carry the fight. The latest to try was Jon Jennings, a former scout for the Boston Celtics, who raised $1.5 million only to watch as Hostettler piled up his largest reelection margin.

Ellsworth, who has served as sheriff of the district's largest county since 1998, may be better positioned to exploit Hostettler's vulnerabilities. Democrats hope his social views -- he is opposed to abortion rights and same-sex marriage -- will insulate him from Republican attacks on wedge issues that have proven effective before. "People appreciate my conservative values," Ellsworth said.

Still, Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight, a political tipsheet, warns not to underestimate Hostettler's friends-and-family turnout operation. "There is a lot more behind the curtain than there appears," he said.

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