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Purdue Fort Wayne Political Scientist discusses Third District Primary

Campaign signs along Coldwater Road in Fort Wayne on Indiana's 2024 Primary Day
Tony Sandleben
89.1 WBOI
Campaign signs along Coldwater Road in Fort Wayne on Indiana's 2024 Primary Day

Third District Republican Congressman Jim Banks is running for Senate. As a result, for the first time in almost ten years, Republicans will have a competitive primary for the seat on Tuesday. Eight Republicans, Huntington State Senator Andy Zay, Former Third District Congressman Marlin Stutzman, Fort Wayne Businessman and former Fort Wayne Mayoral Candidate Tim Smith, Former Allen County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Davis, Military Veterans John Kenworthy and Mike Felker and Construction Project Manager Grant Bucher, and two Democrats, Educator Kylie Adolph and former educator Phil Goss. WBOI's Tony Sandleben sat down with Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics Acting Director Mike Wolf to get his thoughts on the Third District Primary and today's political climate.

Acting Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics Mike Wolf
Photo provided
Photo provided
Acting Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics Mike Wolf

Tony: The third congressional seat is open. Jim banks is running for Senate. There are a wide range of Republicans looking to be the nominee to take that seat. What's your take on the race so far?

Wolf: Well, I do think, as you said, a wide range that really people have a choice of the type of candidate whether they want more of a nonconforming candidate, a business person, for instance, or potentially, maybe an activist, a more liberty-oriented candidate, the working class candidate and then some of the more people that have had electoral experience, or a judge or who’s been in that seat before. So, there's a wide range of narratives that people get to choose here of who they'd like to represent them.

Tony: Given what things look like in the political world, especially at the federal level, abortion is a hot issue, way hotter than it's been in recent memory, even the overall dynamic of democracy. You hear that a lot that democracy is on the ballot. We heard that last election cycle as well. How do you see those two elements, abortion and democracy, playing a role in the third district GOP primary?

Wolf: I think they're going to be mobilizing. We, the Mike Downs Center, also worked with the Center for Collaborative Media and Fort Wayne Media Collaborative for candidate forums and the Democrats that are running for the primary. They were really pushing these issues. Obviously, there's a lot of wind behind their back on this as the energy of these issues are really important for Democrats. On the Republican side, we haven't heard much about them, simply because I mean, the for a primary electorate, those don't really ring as much. With the abortion issue in particular, it pays to put yourself at the more ideological end of things. So, this is something I think we'll see when it comes to the general election, and really enlighten how the debate and the campaign narratives occur both at the federal level, and then all of these issues. That was one of the big points here is the nationalization of all of the issues that we're seeing in the state of Indiana, both at the gubernatorial level and even at the third district, when we hear the candidates talk on things about the border, things about, securing the border and not providing aid to Ukraine, or these kinds of other things. There's been a huge nationalization of this. So, I think that's kind of reflective of what we've heard from the debate so far.

Tony: Obviously, Jim Banks has held that seat for quite some time. What do you think these candidates need to do to pull out a victory in this primary?

Wolf: Yeah, they all have different things to do. I think Marlin Stutzman, having been the previous incumbent, kind of needs to remind people of why they supported him before, and the other people clearly have to give them a reason why to not support him. The politics have changed since he was an incumbent. I think what we've seen is that the energy from the Trump component of the party is really there, and the activism that comes from that. So, we've seen that in how they put themselves in these issues forums that we've hosted and in their commercials: I'm a Trump Republican, that this is the important aspect of it. I think there are some of these candidates like Senator Andrew Zay who are just kind of saying, ‘This is what I've done and gone on the record.’ Tim Smith is coming over from the outside. Wendy Davis has an interesting narrative as being a judge that she's trying to tie in to some of those issues that, particularly at this national level, she says she's addressed in the courtroom. So, I think each these candidates have a lane to go into, even as we see the Congressional staffer, and some of these other people that that are contesting this also have had pretty clear examples. So, there's not a whole lot of difference on some of these issues.

Tony: You mentioned Andy Zay, Tim Smith, Marlin Stutzman, and Wendy Davis. Is it fair to say that, that those are the favorites right now, and everybody else has a lot of catching up to do?

Wolf: Well, they're the most present, and you never know what that means. They're splitting votes, the more we have to really think that. A lot of people would probably vote for any number of these people. So, it's kind of hard to differentiate yourself. Some of the other candidates. as I mentioned, John Kenworthy, who's worked in Washington for a long time. Grant Bucher's a business person ‘I'm going with that component of it along with trying to make things favorable for the American family.’ We saw also Eric Whalen, who's more of a libertarian, at least in this approach in these issues forums. Then Michael Felker kind of puts the hits, you, was a National Guard and also as a blue collar worker. This environment and this new end of the party that the Republicans have done extraordinarily well with, as far as reaching people who don't have skilled labor and other things.

Tony: We talked a little bit about who the favorites might be. And you mentioned that a lot of these folks are taking the ‘I’m a Trump Republican’ and having the Donald Trump influence and trying to use that as to their advantage. That seems to be, and correct me if I'm wrong, but that seems to be what kept Jim banks in the position that he's been in for quite some time. So, was it almost like, ‘well, that worked for him. It should work for us.’?

Wolf: Well, I think this district has had some of this. Jim Banks was head of the Republican Study Committee, which is extraordinarily influential in Washington. So, I think he's recognized as a younger leader among the Republican Party. I imagine if he had not run for Senate, he would have had a really good shot to be the Speaker of the House, given how we've seen that kind of different people have been in and out of being contenders for that. I think he has consensus support in kind of central casting for what Republicans want right now. So, we have heard candidates highlight how much they want to follow up on Jim banks. On the Republican side, I think there was a theme that each one of them has used in these issues forums in the debate. So, it's not a surprise, given the kind of national figure that Jim Banks has become, and how well he's done locally.

Tony: Does It seem like there may be running a risk now that Donald Trump has been multiple times indicted, and could actually have a conviction on his record before the general election. Is it possible that could turn away some moderate Republicans or independents come November?

Wolf: It could be for sure, but the issue is to get the nomination. You have to go where the energy is. That's where we see people knocking on doors. That's where we've seen donations. We’ve seen a lot of outside money come in typically trying to favor one candidate by knocking on other candidates. So, I think that we'll see in the general election whether there could be any damage done from what we don't know yet with Donald Trump. The thing is, is that to win this nomination, and they're pretty heated. Look, if you're a Republican voter, you've got a lot of choices. And you got a lot of different narratives, as we mentioned, up and down that ballot of what kind of person you want representing you. So, I think appearing close to Donald Trump right now is vital to do well in the primary.

Tony: How long do you think that will last? I mean, obviously, through this election cycle, but has Donald Trump's politics become so ingrained in the Republican Party, that even when he's out of the picture, will we still see the MAGA wing of the Republican Party making an influence on GOP primaries like we're seeing today?

Wolf: Well, I think so. If you also look at Indiana since Donald Trump has emerged, and Donald Trump was also coming into an environment that was kind of welcoming, somebody's been extraordinarily critical from the outside of Washington. What we've seen in Indiana is in 2016, Evan Bahy who had won the gubernatorial elections and easily won Senate elections, extraordinarily easy. He reruns in 2016, and he gets just walloped. And then, Joe Donnelly, another kind of moderate Democrat, just like, you know, who had won statewide. He in 2018, he gets really defeated badly by Mike Braun. So, the energy preexisted Trump, but he found a way to really lock into that and bring some new voters in and what we've seen in Indiana is that the direction of politics has turned is much more conservative and much more under the Trump wing. It's helped generally for Republicans to continue to hold supermajorities across the state.

Tony: Looking at the other side of this primary as well: the Democrats. What's going on there? Talk to me about the Democratic primary.


Wolf: Yeah, so we had an issues forum with them too. Kylie Adolph and Phil Goss were both there. And I think their real strengths and things they really talked about are certainly the things that are as mentioning, enlightening that democratic narrative right now, as far as choice and as far as how to focus on helping the Biden agenda, but they both have international experience. They both have lived abroad quite a bit. So, in the issues forum that we had, they kind of really highlighted how they view we have to move forward more with diplomacy. They talked certainly about Ukraine, Gaza, real direct experience, because the contract for the State Department in Poland, and aid office, worked in education around. So, I think they had a real sense more of a foreign policy vision what came through in their issue form on the Republican side. I think that the clarity of answer, there was only one of those Republican candidates that said we should be supporting Ukraine, whereas there were clear details provided on the Democratic side. And that's just where the two parties are right now.

Tony: I mentioned a little bit earlier, that democracy was on the ballot, is there anyone, between the Democrats or Republicans at this point, who you think could get into office and make it an issue to keep democracy off the ballot, to basically say, ‘Okay, come next election cycle, we won't be having these gigantic discussions of, well, if this person wins, our democracy is out the window.’?

Wolf: Yeah, I mean, that this is clearly an issue right now, and it's one of the top issues. When people are asked what their most important issue is, clearly what we've seen is democracy has been around second or third place. And those are typically more Democratic voters. Certainly, what we've seen as the economy has slid a little bit down and democracy is. Concerns about the border have jumped up, and that jump there was particularly among Democrats, but in reality, it's a simmering issue particularly for Democrats who are worried. Political scientists are studying this stuff very closely. And we see trends that are favorable or unfavorable. They didn't start just recently. When we look at freedom in the world, the US, the Freedom House scores have gone down over time. Some of that is critiques of the media, and actually, frankly, some weakening of the media with local newspapers and all this other stuff. So, there is a generalized concern. Now, how that's addressed, and we're in a bad environment to do right now. Because obviously, Donald Trump is on trial. Those are the trials running up into the election. So, we're politicizing the trial, which is its own thing. He has rights, and he has the right to have a slow process in these legal cases, and we should recognize the legal case of that and the civil liberties of the accused there. In turn, though, the politicization of the case itself, then also leads system components in some of the narratives that we get about

punishing political enemies using a criminal justice system. What's backed up by that is Donald Trump has said he would do that upon return to the presidency as well. So, there's a lot of complications and a lot of mixed signals. A lot of this is going to be left up to the American voter to weigh just exactly how to balance what is issued directly in front of them with some generalized concerns about the system and losing an election shouldn't make you want to give up on democracy. What we've seen over the last 20 to 25 years is kind of a real frustration with losing an election and putting all the eggs in a basket and winning an election that actually comes at the expense of recognizing what's good for democracy. So, I think that's a concern people have about gerrymandering, about using Senate rules or the Supreme Court for politicized reasons. Generally, that makes people worried about the institutions holding up.

Tony: I want to jump to the debates you've been part of with the third district GOP candidates. You mentioned that concept of Donald Trump saying he would use the Department of Justice to basically retaliate against his political opponents. He has been on the record to say that he would be a dictator day one. Did that come up in any of these debates?

Wolf: n the debates and issues forums, there's a sense of by Republicans and Republicans generally, that the fact that he's being taken to court and under indictment by the federal government, the government of New York and the government of Georgia, indicates that he's actually being punished for this. So, we have a hard time disentangling, the argument that. ‘The Biden Justice Department is coming after me’ or ‘these liberal prosecutors are doing that.’ This is a doom loop that we’ve been approaching in political science and been writing about for the last 30 years: the generalized concern that there's more attention paid in Washington, to oversight and to criticism of the White House or the White House avoiding going through Congress and doing things like executive orders, and both sides using political investigations and other things to do damage. And ultimately, the concern is that we're undermining the institutions themselves and weakening the presidency. By having all these investigations all the time, we're weakening the courts by politicizing them, as some would say, by kind of constantly bringing people under lawsuit or under indictment. So, there's a generalized concern. Now, look, there's laws in the country. There's ways to play this. I think most Americans would say, actually, there's too few regulations on things like money in politics, which is at the heart of one of these cases, or other aspects of it, that they're not really happy with the electoral system. They hate, a week before the primaries, seeing all these ads, trashing people. In reality, the political mood in the country is one of negativity, and we have to move that polarization into a direction where we're not damaging institutions as we do this.

Tony: You mentioned that political scientists have been studying this for quite a while. And there's been sort of a downward trend over the last I think you've said 20 years or so. So, that and given your assessment of where we are now, begs the question, how did we get here?

Wolf: Well, some of it is political leaders taking strategic decisions to try and gain voters. So, the American South, for instance, was much more conservative than the non south, but was voting Democratic for 100 years after the Civil War. It took a lot for the Republican Party to gain traction in the south and to match the conservatism the party had with the underlying conservatism. Some of those are the cultural and social issues. So, it took a long time for those kinds to sink in a generation of people to get socialized that it was okay to be a Republican, and to identify. Now we see the Republicans dominate the south. When they go to this culturally conservative direction, there's a boomerang effect among the more liberal Republicans that maybe are more rock ribbed on economic issues, but don't really care for some of this. So, we've seen the slow working over the last 50 years of people to be more ideological, and the moderates that we used to see in Congress and frankly, in the American public, are really mostly gone. There are moderates more in the American public right now, but there's hardly any that we could find in the US House or Senate and good luck running for President, as somebody who's kind of flashy. I guess Joe Biden kind of indicated that, but he's certainly getting criticized right now from the left for his position on Gaza, from the left from some of his not doing things like student loans and other things. So, it's a real issue that but one that we have been chronicling all along, detailing how incivility was creeping into this polarization, detailing the short-term benefits we’ve seen like not working out a border deal that the US Senate had really operated on, worked on and gotten people to agree on. Unfortunately, it's not the first time we saw that. The same thing happened in 2006. Actually, there were Democrats that walked away from the plan on that, like Barack Obama, who didn't want, as he was gearing up to run for president, to seem to have been compromising on an issue. So, a lot of these issues are solvable, but how can you run for an office moving ahead if you're penalized for moving toward a more neutral position, even though there's a considerable part of the American public that want that?

Tony: Is there anything else you think people should know about the upcoming primary?

Wolf: Well, I think that there's a lot of information. I think there's a lot of sites, obviously, the league of women voters’ is really good for finding out information, both candidate positions, where to go how to do this thing I know NIPR’s coverage has been fantastic of all these races around the state. You push that on your shows. So, it's appreciated. There's not enough of this, and I do think we're lucky, as I always say, to be in an area where one we have really good universities, particularly my university, and secondly, we have very good media outlets that really tackle these issues. So, there's no shortage of information that you would get from this news station or from the Journal Gazette or from some of these other sources., and some of the private groups that my data center and others have partnered with, really have provided a lot. We have a lot of these issue forums, if you haven't been able to watch them. They're on our Facebook or we'll push them out to anyone who would like them, both on the Democratic and Republican side. So, there's a lot out there.

Tony: Alright. Acting Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. Mike Wolf, thank you so much for being here. Take care.

Tony Sandleben joined the WBOI News team in September of 2022.