House Democrats’ initial 33-seat list of offensive opportunities in the 2020 elections has few surprises, focusing mostly on seats with unexpectedly closes losses last cycle.
A glaring anomaly among the targets released last month by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was Indiana’s 5th District, an affluent suburban seat that has been completely off the political radar. Even more puzzling is that it’s represented by the well-liked, well-respected Susan Brooks, who is the National Republican Congressional Committee’s vice chair for recruitment.
But if demographics are indeed destiny and Democrats can expand on 2018’s suburban gains with President Trump on the ballot again, then maybe actively challenging an incumbent who won last year by 14 points against an opponent who raised just $200,000 is realistic.
The seat covers roughly one-third of Marion County, home of Indianapolis and close-in suburbs, as well as affluent and staunchly Republican but trending-Democratic Hamilton County. Further out are rural counties and the mid-sized city of Anderson. The mean income of $72,000 is the highest in the state, making it among the wealthiest districts in the Midwest that aren’t purely suburban. In 2016, Trump took 52 percent of the vote there.
“Having the northern third of Marion County is the Achilles heel” for Republicans, said a senior Democrat in the state, and the “changing demographics of Hamilton County now make the two largest counties an issue.”
Although it has gone broadly unnoticed, Democrats have been targeting the area for a while as a growth opportunity.
The seat has historically favored the GOP, electing conservative Rep. Dan Burton to 15 consecutive terms before he retired in 2012.
Indianapolis has long been among the most conservative major cities. Trump won Hamilton County by 19 points, down from Mitt Romney’s 34-point victory. That’s down from the 50-point wins George W. Bush garnered in both of his races.
“It is moving. It’s not swinging,” said Mike O’Brien, who managed Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2016 race.
Peter Hanscom, who managed former Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly’s unsuccessful reelection last year, pointed out that the town of Carmel was the first place the campaign put a field office, which he said caused some to question the campaign’s strategy. Donnelly narrowly won the 5th in his race against now-Sen. Mike Braun.
Defeating Brooks will not be easy.
Working in her favor is that she is a favorite of the GOP establishment and a loyal party soldier who would surely be able to get outside help if needed. The former U.S. attorney has voted with Trump the vast majority of the time and took on the thankless task of chairing the Ethics Committee in the 115th Congress.
Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody sees her tightness with the party establishment, as well as her alignment with Trump, as negatives.
“When she looks in the mirror she sees Donald Trump’s administration,” Zody said. “She has not been vocal since he’s been in office.”
Hanscom cautioned that a strictly anti-Trump strategy wouldn’t be enough against the “well-liked” Brooks, who has made herself present in the district. “In a district with a highly educated electorate, you need to present a convincing case why someone else should be hired,” he said.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Weingarten characterized the recent shifts in rapidly growing upscale suburbs like Fishers, Carmel, and Zionsville as “a late-blossoming change” compared to other urban areas. He touted the election of a state senator in the county as well as an influx of educated, white-collar voters as promising signs for 2020.
One Democrat mentioned as a possible strong challenger by observers in both parties was 2016 lieutenant governor nominee Christina Hale, who told National Journal she was ”not ready to comment just now.” One Democrat who has worked in the state said others have been trying to get her to enter the race and that she could clear the primary field if she ran.
But Republicans, and Brooks herself, say they aren’t worried.
Admitting she was “surprised” to see her seat on the list, Brooks said in an interview just off the House floor that she was confident Indiana Republicans would turn out and that she would attract independent voters.
Cam Savage, a consultant for Republican Sen. Todd Young, said Brooks “would bury anybody who pops up” and pointed out that she starts this cycle with “a pretty good head start” of $860,000 socked away even after giving over $600,000 last cycle to the party and other candidates.
Given the windfall of online donations to House candidates last cycle, it's clear that a Democrat could make up the shortfall through fundraising and, as Weingarten pointed out, outside ad spending.
Brooks doesn’t have much of a campaign infrastructure, having paid out just $54,000 in salary to only five campaign staffers throughout the 2018 cycle. And she hasn’t run a competitive race since her first primary in 2012, when she defeated former Rep. David McIntosh by 1,000 votes.
“No Democrat is going to beat Susan Brooks. It’s a total pipe dream,” said Barney Keller, who worked on Braun’s campaign last year. “She won a tough race in 2012 coming from behind, and since then she’s worked really hard at maintaining her own brand.”
In a statement to National Journal, Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer said, “We’d recommend that the DCCC checks its math on this one again.”
Savage doesn’t see it being competitive even if Brooks were not in the race. “Both sides would rant and rave, the Democrats would make a lot of noise early, then lose by 8 to 10 points,” he said.
Brooks is especially unconcerned with having to share a ballot with Trump.
“I think I should do even better,” she said, laughing.