By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010; A3
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 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.
But Coats is also known for his interest in fiscal issues, and he is counting on Indiana voters to care more about his ideas for lowering the deficit than his client list. Despite the anti-Washington sentiment that has hurt establishment candidates in other races, Coats is selling his government experience as an asset.
"As people look at the magnitude of the problems we have, it's not something we can continue to kick the can down the road to another Congress and another president," said Coats spokesman Pete Seat. "He's been there. He can hit the ground running on Day One. Hoosiers respect experience, and they respect someone who wants to leave a better legacy for the next generation."Ellsworth's local focus
Ellsworth, 51, has taken few legislative risks during his two House terms, sticking mainly to local interests. He ensured Indiana hardwoods were included as eligible materials for green building incentives in the stimulus bill. He helped to remove federal barriers that restricted the yields of Indiana tomato growers. He secured funding to improve the lock system on the Ohio River.
At the state fair, Ellsworth met local pork industry officials over a lunch of "garbage burgers," pork patties topped with pulled pork barbecue, and got an earful about a stalled trade agreement with South Korea that is worth about $10 per hog for Hoosier farmers. The officials didn't understand why the Obama administration couldn't get the deal done.
"I hear you," the congressman reassured Michael Platt, executive director of Indiana Pork. "But you're seeing more and more Democrats open to trade agreements, provided they're fair to American workers."
Ellsworth supported three pillars of the Democratic agenda - health care, the stimulus and the financial regulatory overhaul - but voted against the climate-change bill that passed the House last summer. He opposes abortion and federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. He won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association over Coats, who supported several gun-control measures during his tenure in Congress.
He favors extending the full menu of 2001 tax cuts that are scheduled to expire at the end of the year, including preserving lower rates for the top income brackets - a position that could put him at odds with Democratic leaders and the White House.
"In this fragile economy, although they did add to the national debt, now is not the time," Ellsworth said of the taxes in an interview last week between campaign events.
Yet he does not shy from his party affiliation. "We Democrats have nothing to be ashamed of," Ellsworth told 35 Democratic activists who assembled in Indianapolis on a hot weekday afternoon in August for campaign training. The dingy room was cluttered with binders, water bottles and telephone lines, the signs of a busy election office. Canvassing guidelines taped to the wall instructed volunteers to "knock and take a step back" and "bring dog treats."Getting out the vote
This is the Ellsworth campaign's best hope for victory. Democrats expect to open 22 field offices in Indiana this year, about half the number opened by the Obama campaign but unprecedented for any prior election. Party officials believe Ellsworth can beat Coats if Democrats turn out half of the 330,000 Hoosiers who cast ballots for the first time in 2008.
Some volunteers seemed to know as little about Ellsworth as the general public.
"What can I tell voters about you?" a young Indianapolis man asked. Another pressed the candidate, "How should we draw the contrast to Coats?" Lendell Smith, a regional field director from East Chicago, wondered how to quell concerns from progressive Democrats "who don't think you've done enough."
In 2006, Ellsworth's policy record was a blank slate. He'd spent a quarter-century in law enforcement and had never taken a position on a controversial national issue. Now Coats is portraying him as a liberal appendage to Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Countering that perception, while recasting Coats as a special-interest pawn, will require a costly television ad campaign that Ellsworth and his party may not be able to afford.
"You deal with what you're given," Ellsworth said. "You're going to see things come up that you had zero to do with, zero control over. But that's okay."
He has that calm look of a cop trying not to look alarmed at a crime scene. He knows he would probably have won reelection to his House seat and that his political formula is now undergoing a much more rigorous test.
"If you based all your decisions on, 'Will it bring me back?' - that's not what I want to do," Ellsworth said. "I want to do what I think is right, and let the chips fall where they may."