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Hoosier self-funders from Congress spending their money

INDIANAPOLIS – It used to be that any middle-class Hoosier Schmoe could run for Congress… and actually win. Republicans Mike Pence and Democrat Jim Jontz won races in decades gone by by pedaling bicycles to campaign events in their vast congressional districts.

But today, Indiana’s congressional seats are defended and won by the wealthy. A self-financing wave is underway in four Indiana congressional districts, with Republican candidates lending their campaigns an unprecedented $13.88 million, according to Federal Election Commission records of campaign activities through March 31.

Former Indianapolis mayoral candidate Jefferson Shreve’s two-year political wallet blitz continues after he reported $4.5 million in borrowing for his campaign in the 6th Congressional District, with an open seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Greg Pence. Rival candidates include Siddharth Mahant (who spent $2 million of his own money); State Rep. Mike Speedy, who has loaned his campaign $1.3 million; and Greenwood businessman Jamison Carrier, who makes $750,000. State Senator Jeff Raatz is a relative piker, spending only $5,000.

Shreve spent more than $13 million on his failed mayoral bid in Indianapolis in 2023.

In the fifth CD, State Rep. Chuck Goodrich has loaned his campaign $2.6 million in his race against U.S. Rep. Victoria Spartz, who won a 15-candidate primary in 2020 by spending $1.1 million of her own money.

On the open third CD released by US Representative Jim Banks (who is running for US Senate), former Fort Wayne Mayor Tim Smith has earned $1.1 million, Marlin Stutzman has made $500,000 (who already has $100,000 pays back) and Wendy Davis has spent a relatively paltry $83,200 of her own money.

In what was once known as the “Bloody 8th” (it used to be competitive, but 2011 and 2021 maps have shown it a landslide haven) that was abandoned by U.S. Rep. Larry Bucshon, Dr. Richard Moss shells out $545,000 and Dominick Kavanaugh $500,000, while Senator Mark Messmer does it the old-fashioned way, raising money from individual donors and political action committees.

In 2016, Tennessee Republican Trey Hollingsworth spent more than $3 million of his own money, and his father added $1.5 million through a super PAC to win Indiana’s 9th CD. Hollingsworth defeated Attorney General Greg Zoeller, Senator Brent Waltz and current U.S. Representative Erin Houchin in that race.

Two years later, Mike Braun wrote more than $10 million in checks to finance a campaign that defeated two incumbent members of Congress in the November primaries (Luke Messer and Todd Rokita) and then U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly. Donnelly would tell me the following winter that an anonymous dark money donor had pumped $20 million against him.

Senator Braun is financing his gubernatorial campaign this year in a more traditional way, rather than writing personal or corporate checks. But he did receive a $1 million donation from Richard Uihlein, an Illinois businessman. Brad Chambers spent $9 million of his own money in that race, and Eric Doden received $1 million from his parents on April 1.

This unprecedented amount of personal money comes amid an exodus of powerful Republicans from the U.S. House of Representatives, where nearly 30 members, including five committee chairs, are not seeking reelection or are abruptly heading for the exit.

So Indiana tends to choose self-financers to open congressional seats.

And now a new trend line is emerging: the self-financers don’t stay long. Hollingsworth left the House after four terms, Pence after three terms, Spartz after two (until she changed her mind and filed just before the February filing deadline), and Braun after one six-year term. Representatives Pence and Hollingsworth had no communications activities at the congressional level.

They don’t communicate. They maintain ‘zombie offices’ with high employee turnover. They don’t do town halls.

With little tenure, Indiana’s influence on Capitol Hill is eroding. For example, the Indiana delegation does not have a committee chair. Representative Houchin is the 2022 Republican Class President and is in charge, but that’s it.

Indiana’s delegation has little influence, especially in the House of Representatives. According to the Center for Effective Lawmaking, a joint project of the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University, Legislative Effectiveness Scores, Representative Bucshon was the most effective with 32 of the 222 GOP members measured (and he is retiring); Banks was ranked 63rd, Spartz at 148, Hollingsworth at 154, the late Jackie Walorski at 165, Pence at 193 and Jim Baird at 199. For Democrats, Rep. Frank Mrvan was 54th out of 232 caucus Democrats, while Rep. Andre Carson ranked 167th. .

Although the Indiana House delegation was unproductive legislatively, Axios reported that the 118th Congress is on track to be one of the most unproductive in modern history. Fewer than 25 bills have been passed and signed. The year 2023 also marks the low point in a years-long trend toward gridlock: five of the six most unproductive early years have been since 2011.

So it’s funny in a disturbing way that these wealthy candidates would strive to get a job in such a dysfunctional body. In February, Gallup estimated Congress’ favorability at an embarrassing 12%.

Perhaps they dream of becoming a wealthy politician and becoming a statesman, if they decide to stay long enough.

Brian Howey is a senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and X @hwypol. Foreign Affairs reporter Jarred Meeks contributed to this column.