In December, John Hostettler decided to take on a job few members of his party wanted: Republican challenger to popular Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). The national GOP did not place Bayh’s seat very high on its list of 2010 pickup opportunities. In 2008, Indiana defied its Republican roots when it went narrowly for Barack Obama. Bayh vs. Hostettler looked like a long shot, but it would at least carry the distinction of pitting a Democrat who had supported the Iraq War against a Republican who opposed it from the beginning.
Then came Scott Brown’s special election to the U.S. Senate in January. Suddenly, the sky seemed the limit. If a Republican could be elected to Ted Kennedy’s seat, party recruiters asked, why couldn’t they take Evan Bayh’s? After all, it had once belonged to Dan Quayle. By February, Bayh himself had apparently decided the seat was no longer safe and dramatically announced his retirement.
Hostettler, a soft-spoken, cerebral mechanical engineer first decided to run for Congress in Indiana’s Eighth District in 1994, challenging incumbent Democratic Rep. Frank McCloskey. Despite the district’s volatile natureits competitiveness led handicappers to call it the “Bloody Eighth”the national party was slow to sense an opportunity to take out McCloskey.
But Hostettler was not. He ran a vigorous campaign, tying the incumbent to the national Democratic Party and blasting him as “Frank McClinton.” Hostettler mobilized grassroots conservative activists, particularly gun owners and pro-life evangelical Christians, who were ready to rid Washington of Bill Clinton’s minions. He upset McCloskey and was re-elected five times.
Republicans in Washington are eagerly anticipating another 1994, but they don’t seem interested in history repeating itself with Hostettler. Even before Bayh dropped out, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) was desperate to come up with a different challenger. Their first choice was Rep. Mike Pence, a genial Hoosier who is popular with movement conservatives and already chairman of the House Republican Conference.
William Kristol tried to start a “draft Pence” riot last year, when Scott Brown was still a gleam in Republicans’ eyes. Praising a Pence statement opposing the Democratic healthcare bill, Kristol made the case that the country needed an “articulate, conservative first-term Senator who had knocked off a ‘safe’ Democrat in a state Obama carried in 2008.” Foreign policy went unmentioned in Kristol’s pleaand so did Hostettler.
Yet a Rasmussen poll released as Pence was in talks with the NRSC did mention Hostettler. The results: Pence led Bayh by three points, 47 percent to 44 percent. Hostettler trailed Bayh by three, 44 percent to 41 percent. A third candidate, state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, was 12 points behind Bayh. Not a sure bet for anyoneand given the margin of error, no clear evidence that Pence was a stronger Republican nominee than Hostettler.
Pence decided to take a pass on the race. “After much prayer and deliberation,” he said in a statement, “I have decided to remain in the House and to seek re-election to the 6th Congressional District in 2010.” This ran counter to Kristol’s advice. “If [Pence] won, he’d be a leading possibility for national office as soon as 2012,” the Weekly Standard editor wrote. “If he loses, but runs a respectable racewhich surely he’ll dohe’d have a good shot to succeed Mitch Daniels as governor in 2012.”
But Pence is already talked about as a serious candidate for governor, and even for president, in 2012. He will also be in line to become at least the majority whip if Republicans retake control of the House in 2010, a development that no longer seems remote. Given those facts, challenging Bayh seemed to be a risky move for Pence, while Hostettler has nothing to lose. Hostettler himself would have been a problem for Pence. As a blogger for the Swing State Project put it, “Pence could find himself stepping into an unenviable situation that replicates a lot of other Republican Senate primaries: he’d be running as the ‘establishment’ candidate against a movement conservative outsider even further to his right.”
The party establishment’s next choice was former Sen. Dan Coats, who previously held the seat and has won statewide office beforemost recently in 1992, six years before he decided to retire rather than face Evan Bayh in a general election. While he had a generally conservative voting record in Congress, his post-congressional career has seen him lobbying for bailouts, government subsidies, and the confirmation of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.
Writes Timothy Carney in the Washington Examiner, Coats’s “clients include a lineup of subsidy sucklers and regulatory robber barons, many of which spent 2009 at President Obama’s side, fighting for the Democrats’ ‘reform’ agenda.” On the bailouts, government growth, and crony capitalism that anger the Right’s Tea Party activists, Bayh and Coats have often been in cahoots rather than in conflict. And Democrats were quick to pounce on Coats’s favorable comments about living outside of Indiana.
A Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll found Bayh above 50 percent, in a much stronger position to win re-election than Rasmussen showed. But it affirmed the earlier poll’s finding that Hostettler was no less competitive than the NRSC’s preferred candidatein fact, he ran two points ahead of Coats. Argued Markos Moulitsas, “When you run corrupt Washington insider against corrupt Washington insider, the opposition remains uninspired.” Now the Democrats’ Washington insider is gone from the race.
Why does the national GOP seem to want anyone but Hostettler? Throughout his six terms in the House, Hostettler eschewed political action committee support and therefore struggled to raise money. Coats is well connected and unlikely to have that problem. Secondly, Hostettler was defeated for re-election in 2006, garnering just 39 percent of the vote in a district that went for George W. Bush and John McCain.
Then there is the matter of Hostettler’s independence. “I’m sure the NRSC called somebody up in the House leadership and asked about John,” says a Hostettler-friendly conservative activist. “The answer they probably got was, ‘When I needed his vote, that son of a bitch wouldn’t give it to me’.”
Hostettler voted against the Medicare prescription-drug benefit and No Child Left Behind. He voted against the federal marriage amendment, preferring instead to preserve traditional marriage by stripping federal courts of jurisdiction over the issue. He was one of 11 Republicans to vote against the $51.8 billion Hurricane Katrina relief package. In 1996, he was one of 17 Republicans who voted against a budget compromise backed by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich that would have ended the federal government shutdown. Gingrich canceled a fundraiser for Hostettler as a result.
Hostettler’s biggest dissent, however, was on Iraq. He had opposed making regime change the official U.S. policy by voting against the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. Then Hostettler was one of just six House Republicans to vote against authorizing the invasion of Iraq, while Democrats like Bayh were still on board. At the time, Hostettler questioned the need for pre-emptive strikes and said he was not persuaded by the evidence the Bush administration offered for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. In the floor speech explaining his vote, he cited St. Augustine and Just War theory, as well as the Founding Fathers.
After leaving Congress, Hostettler stepped up his criticism of the war. He even wrote an antiwar book, Nothing for the Nation: Who Got What Out of Iraq. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Republican who recanted his support for the war, praised the book: “Had we listened to Hostettler at the time, we would not have done it. … For years I have known I was wrong. Now I know why I was wrong.” Others, such as Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, have criticized the book’s references to Israeli security concerns and neoconservatives: “Hostettler’s reasoning is nothing new, following the line of attack in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by academics John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt.”
Hostettler rejects this as a mischaracterization of his views, but is unapologetic about his disagreements with neoconservatives. “The neocons know what a Senator Hostettler would mean,” he says. “They would rather have Evan Bayh as the lead sponsor of sanctions against Iran, bringing us to the brink of war or a Republican who would do the same thing.” Hostettler argues, “They want to mold the Republican Party’s image on foreign policy, and I am not of that mold.”
Ironically, Hostettler’s foreign-policy views could help him overcome one of his biggest liabilities: raising money. The success of Ron Paul’s Internet-based “money bombs” has recently carried over for other antiwar Republicans. But in the primary, Hostettler must also avoid alienating his conservative Christian base, which has tended to support the Bush Doctrinein that regard, Rand Paul, whose bid for the GOP nomination in Kentucky has been endorsed by conservatives ranging from the elder Paul to Sarah Palin, may be a model.
Foreign policy is likely to remain a hotly debated topic in the general election, where the probable Democratic replacements for Bayh are all centrists not known for their antiwar views. But first, Hostettler will have to get there.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: [email protected]