We Come to Bury Sodrel, Not to Praise Him

by Stuart Rothenberg June 3, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

Mike Sodrel has been in my life forever. Or maybe it just seems that way.

Every two years for almost a decade, the Republican businessman has been on the ballot in Indiana’s 9th district, either trying to oust Rep. Baron Hill (D) from Congress or, once, seeking re-election to the House.

But with his bizarre primary defeat earlier this month, Sodrel, a 64-year-old trucking company owner, probably ends a political run that featured more downs than ups.

Sodrel first took on Hill in 2002, four years after the Democrat won an open-seat contest to succeed highly regarded Democrat Lee Hamilton in a Congressional district that includes much of southeastern Indiana.

Hill won that contest narrowly, 51 percent to 46 percent, and Sodrel presumably figured that he’d do better in a rematch. He did, nipping Hill by half a point (49.5 percent to 49 percent) to win the House seat in the presidential year of 2004.

Hill, figuring that he’d do better in a midterm year, came back for a rematch of his own, and he won back his seat, 50 percent to 45 percent.

Sodrel, not content to move on with his life, ran again in 2008. But this time Hill, riding a big Democratic wave, went on to draw 58 percent of the vote and win by about 20 points, a true landslide in a district where Hill previously had won by just a few points.

You might have thought that Sodrel would see the writing on the wall, and for months it seemed as if he had run his last race in the 9th district. But with the Republican field in the district very thin this cycle (attorney Todd Young and real estate investor/outspoken Christian Travis Hankins), Sodrel once again jumped into the race.

He came in for an interview in late March, his eyes focused squarely on Hill and the general election, not on the primary.

He was armed with a Wilson Research Strategies poll of 400 likely general election voters (with an oversample that included 300 likely GOP primary voters), conducted Feb. 28 to March 4.

During the interview, Sodrel and his consultants dismissed his primary opponents, preferring to talk about how and why the former Congressman was going to defeat Hill. In fact, the WRS polling memo included four “Key Observations” — the first three about how well-positioned Sodrel was to defeat Hill.

Only the fourth point — “With the Primary Election in 41 days, it is very unlikely that Young or Hankins can catch-up” — dealt with the primary outlook.

According to the WRS poll, Sodrel’s 46 percent showing in the Republican primary put him far ahead of Hankins’ 19 percent and Young’s 13 percent. Both primary opponents had been running for more than a year, the WRS memo pointed out dismissively, promising that the former Congressman should “sweep” his primary opponents away in the early May contest.

Part of Sodrel’s optimism about the primary is that, as he told us, he is “98 percent known” by the Republican base. Because he said that it takes years to build up name ID in a district that includes multiple media markets, he didn’t plan to spend much money or run paid media during the primary campaign.

Of course, as Sodrel found out, there is a difference between being known and being liked.

Apparently, 9th district Republican voters knew Sodrel but were ready for a change.

Sodrel ended up finishing third, with 30 percent of the primary vote, behind Young (34 percent) and Hankins (32 percent). Hankins had raised a total of $184,000 through April 14, yet he finished ahead of a former Congressman who was allegedly leading the contest handily six weeks earlier.

National Republican strategists weren’t all that upset when Sodrel lost the primary. They figured that voters had already tired of him and that he didn’t have all that appealing a profile given the dynamics of the 2010 cycle.

If Sodrel’s defeat proves anything, it is that candidates can’t take anything for granted and that any candidate who thinks he doesn’t need to win over the voters is a candidate who probably won’t win over the voters. It also raises questions about some early polling.