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How Far Right, Hoosier Republicans?

There are three primaries being held on May 4, in Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina. I’ll do a preview of the Democratic Senate battles in Ohio and North Carolina tomorrow. But perhaps the most interesting contest is the Indiana Republican Senate primary, which offers Hoosier GOPers the choice of three different flavors of conservatism in their effort to win an open Democratic Senate seat against Rep. Brad Ellsworth (who will become the Democratic nominee by action of the state Democratic Party soon after the primary because no candidate filed following Sen. Evan Bayh’s last-minute retirement announcement).

The front-runner all along has been former Sen. Dan Coats, whose career has nicely encapsulated modern Indiana politics (at least before he retired from the Senate and moved to Virginia).

He was a House staffer for Dan Quayle who won his boss’ seat when Quayle defeated long-time Democratic senator Birch Bayh in 1980. He then was appointed to the Senate when Quayle became vice president in 1989, and was eventually succeeded in 1998 by none other than Birch Bayh’s son Evan.

Coats was considered a fairly conventional conservative in the Senate, mainly distinguishing himself by close ties to the Christian Right (James Dobson has endorsed his current bid for office) and for sponsorship of faith-based social initiatives of the sort that eventually were identified with George W. Bush’s so-called “compassionate conservative” agenda. He was an early member of the shadowy Washington-based conservative evangelical prayer-and-power cabal known variously as The Fellowship and The Family, made famous recently by the antics of John Ensign and Mark Sanford.

But Coats also made a habit in the Senate of voting for mild gun control legislation, which has come back to haunt him among Second Amendment absolutists during the current campaign. More problematic than that has been his post-Senate career as a DC-based lobbyist who has represented clients like the Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Chrysler, and who also promoted cap-and-trade legislation. (It also probably doesn’t help that the firm, if not Coats personally, lobbied for foreign governments, including Yemen.)

The big question for tomorrow is whether Coats’ comeback effort will be snuffed by one of two strangely similar-but-different hard-core conservative challenges.

Coats’ most prominent early rival for the nomination was another blast-from-the-past, former paleoconservative Rep. John Hostettler, who’s main national proponent is Ron Paul. Hostettler managed to hold on to a competitive House seat from 1994 until 2006, becoming a hero of “movement conservatives” for votes against No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and the deal whereby Newt Gingrich ended the “government shutdown” crisis of 1995. For dessert, he also voted against Katrina relief funds. He also continued to support elimination of the Departments of Education and Energy long after other Republicans gave up on such positions, and probably earned his Paul endorsement by being just one of six House Republicans to vote against the Iraq War Resolution.

After his involuntary separation from the House, Hostettler endorsed the far-right Constitution Party’s presidential candidate in 2008. Aside from that apostasy, his main problems are that he has a career-long difficulty in raising money (as of the last quarterly campaign finance report, he had only raised a bit over 50 grand, and obviously couldn’t afford paid media), and that he was trounced by Ellsworth in 2006, losing by the largest margin of any House incumbent. He is leading Ellsworth handily in current general election trial heats, but remains dogged by the impression that he’s determined never to win without winning ugly.

Given Coats’ and Hostettler’s various vulnerabilities, the hot ticket among conservatives going into the primary has been former state senator Marlin Stutzman, who is advertising himself as part of a “new generation of conservative leadership.” While little known statewide compared to his old-school rivals, Stutzman has separated himself from several other obscure right-wing candidates by attracting national attention. He’s been endorsed by Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservative Fund, by RedState’s Erick Erickson, and by Mike Huckabee, and has raised enough money to run some TV ads.

The most recent poll of this contest by a national pollster, SurveyUSA, released on April 29, showed Coats with 36%, Hostettler with 24%, and Stutzman with 18% (but this survey involved a small GOP subsample and carried a 5% MoE). DeMint’s Senate Conservative Fund released an quickie one-night poll a day after SUSA’s, showing Coats at 28%; Hostettler and Stutzman tied at 18%; and 30% undecided, accompanied by some spin suggesting that it’s becoming a two-man race between Coats and a “surging” Stutzman.

Whether or not DeMint’s folks did an accurate survey, they are accurately conveying the anxiety in “movement conservative”/Tea Party circles that Coats will get the nomination via name ID and an even split of the serious right-wing vote. That is, indeed, the CW expectation for tomorrow night, and it’s a sign of the times that a Coats victory would probably be interpreted as a small triumph for “moderate” Republicanism. We’ll soon see if that happens, or if, instead, Hostettler shows he was simply ahead of his time in opposing much of the bipartisan policy consensus of the late twentieth- and early-twenty-first centuries, or Stutzman is the wave of the Red State Future.

FWIW, the SUSA poll shows all three major Republican candidates beating Ellsworth by double-digit margins. But an extended general election campaign is another matter entirely, and Democrats will draw some hope from a contest against a GOP nominee with Coats’ residence and lobbying record; Hostettler’s fundraising struggles and prior failure against Ellsworth; or Stutzman’s relative obscurity and lack of any record of success beyond winning the endorsement of out-of-state conservative agitators.