An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Brad Ellsworth had been endorsed by the National Rifle Association. Though he is widely expected to receive it, the organization has not announced its endorsement. The story also should have described a poll that showed Ellsworth trailing his Republican opponent, Dan Coats, as having been conducted by the Ellsworth campaign.
Indiana's Ellsworth, onetime Democratic star, now a symbol of party's struggles
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 11:54 AM
When Brad Ellsworth won his U.S. House seat in Indiana four years ago, he was hailed by Democrats as the future of their party: a telegenic former sheriff with moderate instincts and an ability to appeal to a diverse electorate.
It was candidates such as Ellsworth who enabled the Democrats to conquer frontiers that mostly seemed beyond their reach, places such as Evansville and Terre Haute, which stuck with the party in 2008 and enabled President Obama to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Indiana in 44 years.
Today, those gains are in jeopardy, with Democratic prospects following the downward trend of the economy and Obama's approval ratings. Ellsworth is running well behind in the race to replace Sen. Evan Bayh and has now become the face of the Democrats' reversal of fortunes across the Midwest. The state's two other vulnerable House Democrats, Reps. Joe Donnelly and Baron P. Hill, are battling to hold their seats, and Republicans could reclaim the district Ellsworth has represented for the past four years.
The dynamics raise a question larger than any one race - whether new Democrats have succeeded in expanding the political map in any sort of lasting way or whether candidates such as Ellsworth were just in the right place at the right time.
Regardless, Ellsworth's 2010 challenges are proving as formidable as the 2006 landscape was beckoning.
When Bayh announced his retirement in February, state party leaders rallied around Ellsworth for his potential to win support across the state, from the small-town social conservatives of southern Indiana to the more traditional union Democrats of Hammond and Gary.
"The same things that made him an appealing recruit in '06 makes him appealing for a Senate seat, especially in this year," said Dan Parker, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party. "He's a regular guy who is grounded in Indiana."
But Ellsworth is battling low name recognition at a time when voters aren't much interested in Democrats of any variety. In a poll conducted by Ellsworth's campaign and released last week, he trailed his Republican opponent, Dan Coats, by 11 points, though Democrats attributed much of that to the fact that many voters don't know Ellsworth.
As Ellsworth strolled the grounds of the Indiana State Fair last week, one of the few people who recognized him was the architect of the jail in Vanderburgh County, where Ellsworth served as sheriff for eight years.
The candidate wore nothing on his crisp white shirt, not a button, sticker or pin, to identify him as the Democratic Senate nominee. Ellsworth introduced himself to Dave Forgey, a dairy farmer from Logansport, and was met by a blank look. "Who are you running against?" Forgey replied.
The answer to that question is Coats, possibly the year's most unlikely Senate front-runner. Coats's resume reads like a list of everything voters have frowned upon this year - he served in the House and Senate before becoming a lobbyist for oil companies, health insurers and Wall Street banks. Until recently he was a resident of Northern Virginia, and he had purchased a retirement home in North Carolina.