Indiana 3: A Run on Banks’ Seat
February 15, 2023 · 12:45 PM EST
Republican Rep. Jim Banks appears to have already locked up support for his 2024 Senate run. But the race to replace the congressman in his northeastern Indiana district has only just begun.
Most of Banks’ potential opponents have decided not to run for the open Senate seat, and the congressman has the implicit support of Senate Republicans’ campaign organization, more than a year before the critical primary. The House race is a different story. Though a few prominent Republicans have announced that they’re looking at the seat, a clear frontrunner hasn’t yet emerged. Banks’ successor in this deep red seat will be decided in next May’s GOP primary.
The Lay of the Land
Staunch conservatives have represented the northeast region of Indiana in Congress for the past three decades.
Banks was first elected to the seat in 2016, after Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman left the seat to mount an unsuccessful Senate bid. With the support of the House Freedom Caucus and the Club for Growth, Banks narrowly won a six-way race for the Republican nomination and then cruised to victory in the general election.
Banks’ predecessor, Stutzman, was a founding member of the Freedom Caucus first elected as a Tea Party conservative in 2010. He succeeded Republican Rep. Mark Souder, a self-described “ultraconservative” elected in 1994. Souder represented the region in Congress for eight terms before he resigned in 2010 after admitting to having an affair with a staffer.
The 3rd is based in Fort Wayne, the second-largest city in the state, and encompasses the northeast corner of Indiana. The latest round of redistricting had a minimal impact on the district’s geography, and Republicans are still strongly favored — Trump would have won the new version of the district by 64 points in 2020.
The Republican Field
The most well-known Republican to signal that they might be interested in running is Stutzman.
The former congressman has run for Senate twice in the past 13 years (in 2010 and 2016). Todd Young, who represented Indiana’s 9th District at the time, easily defeated him in the GOP primary in 2016, and Stutzman has stayed out of the political spotlight since then.
Stutzman is currently the president of WishBone Orthopaedic Foundation, and he and his wife, former state Rep. Christy Stuztman, co-own a farm equipment store in Middlebury, Indiana, and a bridal boutique in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Christy Stuzman vied unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in the special election for the 2nd District last summer (Middlebury is on the eastern border of the 2nd, while Stutzman’s official residence is in Howe, on the western border of the 3rd).
“When Congressman Banks decided to run for the Senate, our family sat down and talked about it. We think this might be the right time to throw our hat in the ring,” Stutzman told WANE last month.
Stutzman has been involved in Indiana GOP politics for most of his professional life.
The fourth-generation farmer was first elected to the state House in 2002 when he was 25-years-old, and served there for six years. After working for Souder as a special assistant for a few years, he went back to the state Capitol and served in the state Senate seat for less than one term before deciding to run for Indiana’s open U.S. Senate seat. Backed by the Tea Party wing of the GOP, Stutzman came in second place with almost 30 percent of the primary vote, while former Sen. Dan Coats won with 40 percent.
But Souder’s resignation provided another opportunity for Stutzman to go to Washington. Since Souder had resigned after the primary, Republicans in the 9th District held a caucus and nominated Stutzman, who went on to easily win the November election.
State Sen. Andy Zay, who succeeded Banks in his state Senate seat in 2010, could also potentially succeed him in Congress. The state senator announced last month that he’s mulling a bid but is focused on the state legislative session right now (the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn at the end of April).
Zay represents Huntington, a town southwest of Fort Wayne, where he owns a car rental company. He was nominated to his seat after Banks ascended to Congress, and Zay won re-election in 2018 and 2022. He faced a bit of controversy in 2018 after news broke that he said “racism is not real” in a private Facebook message.
Another Republican state senator, Justin Busch, has been mentioned as a potential candidate. Busch was appointed to his Fort Wayne-based seat in 2018 and re-elected in 2020. Prior to being appointed to the state Senate, he served on the Allen County Council. Busch, who’s currently a regional district director for Sen. Young, has worked in Republican politics for the past two decades. He was a field director for George W. Bush’s re-election campaign and also worked for former Indiana Sens. Dan Coats and Richard Lugar.
Several other Republicans are reportedly considering bids. Allen County Circuit Judge Wendy Davis would be a “formidable” candidate, according to one Republican who spoke with Inside Elections, and could draw support from outside groups that support Republican women running for office. Davis served on the Allen Superior Court Criminal Division for 10 years and was elected to the circuit court in 2020.
Former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke told Howey Politics Indiana that he’s “keep[ing] an eye on things” and wouldn’t rule out a run. The 74-year-old former mayor was the 1998 Republican nominee for Senate but lost to then-Gov. Evan Bayh. He also unsuccessfully challenged Souder in the 2002 GOP primary for this district.
Tim Smith, who ran for mayor of Fort Wayne in 2019, might run as well. Smith won the competitive GOP primary, defeating a Republican city councilman, but lost by more than 20 points to the current Democratic mayor, Tom Henry. He’s currently the CEO of Lasting Change, a Christian nonprofit in Fort Wayne.
Other potential candidates include state Rep. Bob Morris, who made headlines back in 2012 for accusing Girl Scouts of destroying American values, state Sen. Liz Brown, who ran for the 3rd District in 2016 and came in third place, and agribusinessman Kip Tom, who came in second place in the 2016 primary — only 3 points behind Banks. Tom ran one of the state’s largest farming operations before serving as the ambassador to United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in the Trump administration.
So far, only one Republican has announced they’re running for the open seat. Mike Felker announced his campaign less than two weeks ago. The Warsaw native served in the National Guard for 20 years and works as a maintenance technician. But Republican strategists are skeptical that the political newcomer will be able to mount a serious campaign.
With the field still so unsettled, it’s difficult to gauge how competitive the Republican primary will be. The nominee might win a fairly small plurality of the GOP vote if the field is crowded. But whoever wins the party’s nomination could have a long career in Congress ahead of them thanks to the district’s strong Republican lean.