Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D)
Indiana 8th District
“Evansville,” wrote John Bartlow Martin in 1947, “is the capital of a tri-state area comprising the neglected tag ends of Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois.” It was a factory town then, making car parts and refrigerators, drawing workers from Kentucky, Tennessee, and the picturesque but not very fertile hills of southern Indiana. Today, Evansville has become the headquarters for a number of midsize companies that offer many high-paying, skilled jobs. Car parts still get made here, though it is auto assembly that helps anchor the local manufacturing economy. Toyota in 1998 opened a plant in nearby Princeton that builds SUVs and minivans, employing approximately 4,500 workers who take home as much as $28 an hour. It has seen hard times, such as the terrible flood of March 1997 and a November 2005 tornado that killed 24 people, but it also has Indiana’s first riverboat casino and claims to have the nation’s second-largest street festival, second only to New Orleans’s Mardi Gras celebration. In 2008, construction began on the long-discussed Interstate 69 extension from Evansville to Indianapolis, which one local official said was “40 years too late.”
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Evansville is one of two major centers of the 8th Congressional District, which covers most of southwest and west-central Indiana. The other, in Vigo County, is Terre Haute, an old manufacturing town and the boyhood home of socialist Eugene Debs. It hosts a maximum-security penitentiary, which includes the only federal death chamber; Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed there in 2001. In 2008, Pfizer closed a local plant that had employed about 800 workers producing the insulin drug Exubera. The district also takes in Vincennes, now a small town on the banks of the Wabash River but once a major metropolis. Downstream is New Harmony, established by Scottish philanthropist and visionary Robert Owen. His son was the first congressman from the area, elected in 1842 and 1844. Southern Indiana is ancestrally Democratic, just as northern Indiana is ancestrally Republican. These southern counties were hostile to Union during the Civil War. In New Deal times, workers in Evansville again moved toward the Democrats.
The result has been a very close political balance, and this district has become known as the “Bloody 8th” for its tight congressional races. At one point in the 1970s, it sent four different members to the House in four successive elections. In 1984, the state certified the Republican as the winner by exactly 34 votes. The Democratic majority in the U.S. House overturned the result, however, in a fight that left many Republican members bitterly aggrieved. Since then, the district has been as fiercely contested as ever. The trend in presidential politics, however, is away from national Democrats. Bill Clinton twice carried the 8th by a 2% margin, George W. Bush won it with 56% in 2000, and again in 2004 with 62%. After campaigning there vigorously, Barack Obama won Vanderburgh and Vigo counties, but he narrowly lost the district, 51%-47%.
Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D)
Elected: 2006, 2nd term.
Born: Sept. 11, 1958, Huntingburg .
Education: U. of S. IN, B.S. 1981, IN St. U., M.A. 1993.
Family: Married (Beth); 1 child.
Elected office: Vanderburgh Cnty. Sheriff, 1998-2006.
Professional Career: Chief deputy, Vanderburgh Cnty. Sheriff’s Office, 1982-98.
The congressman from the 8th District is Brad Ellsworth, a Democrat elected in 2006. He was born in Jasper, not far outside the current district, and his family moved to Evansville when he was 10 and his father took a job as crane operator at a nearby Alcoa plant. Brad graduated in 1981 from what was then called Indiana State University at Evansville, where he worked in the paint and hardware departments at Sears to pay his tuition, and then joined the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy. Ellsworth steadily rose through the ranks while also earning a master’s degree in criminology by taking weekend courses at Indiana State. He easily won his first election as county sheriff in 1998 and ran unopposed in 2002. During his eight years as sheriff, Ellsworth became a familiar name in Vanderburgh County, which is in the district’s largest media market.
|Brad Ellsworth (D)||188,693||(65%)||($1,366,664)|
|Greg Goode (R)||102,769||(35%)||($223,729)|
|Brad Ellsworth (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (61%)
In 2006, Ellsworth took on Rep. John Hostettler, a conservative Republican iconoclast who had held the 8th District seat for six terms. Hostettler had never won with more than 53% of the vote, and his policy of never accepting political action committee donations made him a weak fundraiser and a perennial Democratic target. He frequently bucked the GOP leadership in Congress, including voting against the 1995 balanced-budget amendment and the use of force in Iraq. Republican strategists each cycle worried about Hostettler’s re-election but took comfort in his uncanny ability to eke out victories by mobilizing support among anti-abortion voters and Christian conservatives. After a string of disappointing challengers, Democrats thought they had found the ideal candidate for this culturally conservative district. Ellsworth touted gun-ownership rights and opposed abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and a hasty withdrawal of troops from Iraq. A quarter-century’s experience as a police officer made him highly credible on crime and law enforcement issues. When a tornado devastated parts of southern Indiana in November 2005, Ellsworth was everywhere, helping people deal with the aftermath; while Hostettler was nearly invisible. Hostettler also found himself in the uncomfortable position of asking for federal disaster aid just two months after he had voted against Hurricane Katrina relief for the Gulf Coast.
Hostettler made few appearances and ran no ads until relatively late, leading to rumors that he had given up the race. In October, he ran a radio spot, in which an announcer impersonated Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movie character and warned that a vote for Ellsworth was a vote for Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. “Pelosi will then put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda,” the announcer warned. The attacks alienated many women who liked Pelosi, while baffling other potential voters who had no idea who she was. Meanwhile, Ellsworth was enjoying a surfeit of attention. Just weeks before the election, The Washington Post featured the “swaggering Indiana sheriff” in a front-page story about good-looking candidates running that year. Ellsworth also had a strong financial advantage, spending more than $1.7 million, three times as much as Hostettler’s $580,000. On Election Day, Ellsworth crushed Hostettler 61%-39%, an unusually weak showing for a non-scandal-ridden incumbent. Ellsworth carried 14 of the district’s 18 counties; he beat Hostettler by 11,500 votes in Vigo County and by nearly 15,000 votes in Vanderburgh County (63%-37%).
In the House, Ellsworth joined the conservative Blue Dog Democrats and established a centrist voting record. In 2008, he had a composite score of 47.8 in National Journal’s annual vote analysis. (A score of 50 is the exact ideological center of House, inclusive of both parties.) Ellsworth backed the Bush administration’s troop surge in Iraq and split with his party on several issues, including his opposition to granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and to federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research. “I vote like that because that’s what I think the folks here want me to do,” he told the Evansville Courier & Press in 2007. In 2008, he supported the massive bailout bill for the financial markets as necessary to assure loans to small businesses. He was also successful in getting the House to pass his bill barring companies with tax debts from receiving large government contracts or grants.
In his district-centered work, Ellsworth was among the most successful freshman Democrats in securing earmarks, special provisions tucked into spending bills. It was not an altogether positive distinction. Earmarks recently became highly controversial as federal spending ballooned and many of the projects were revealed to be unnecessary or wasteful. Ellsworth secured $5.6 million for AmeriQual, an Evansville company that produces packaged meals for the military. “Hoosiers play by the rules and pay their taxes, so it’s only fair they receive some of the benefit of their tax dollars,” Ellsworth said in defending his earmarks to the Courier & Press.
Republicans failed to recruit a top-flight challenger to Ellsworth when he sought re-election in 2008. He won 65%-35% against Greg Goode, a former Indiana State University public-affairs officer. Although he says he voted for Barack Obama in the Indiana primary, Ellsworth went to the Democratic convention as a delegate for Hillary Rodham Clinton because she carried his district.