Indiana 5: Ready to Run

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 7, 2020 · 2:30 PM EST

Indiana’s 5th District isn’t at the top of Democrats’ takeover target list, but the race is a good barometer for at least two key trends: the blue shift in the suburbs and the challenge for House Republicans to even maintain their small number of women on Capitol Hill. 

\Even though Donald Trump won the 5th in 2016, Democrats took aim at the seat two years later because it contains some of Indianapolis’s northside suburbs. GOP Rep. Susan Brooks won re-election by 14 points in 2018, but her subsequent retirement creates an open seat, and a potential headache for her party if Republicans don’t nominate someone who is acceptable to a broad base of voters.

Brooks’ departure also threatens the number of Republican women in the House because she’s one of just 13 currently serving. And based on the initial handicapping, it looks like even if Republicans hold the district, it’s most likely to be with a man, in part because of multiple, credible female contenders.

The race should be a bellwether to see if the bottom has fallen out for the Republicans on Election Night.

The Lay of the Land
Indiana’s 5th District sits north of Indianapolis and includes Carmel, Anderson, Noblesville, Fishers, Marion, Westfield, and Zionsville. It’s the wealthiest district in the state with a mixture of wealthier suburbs, blue-collar cities and rural areas. 

At the presidential level, Trump won the district 53-41 percent in 2016, Mitt Romney carried it 58-41 percent in 2012, and John McCain won it 53-47 percent in 2008, according to Daily Kos Elections. But those results haven’t deterred Democrats, who believe the demographics of the district are trending in their direction. 

Democrats are most encouraged by the 2012 and 2018 Senate results in which Democrat Joe Donnelly carried the 5th District both times (even though he lost re-election statewide last cycle).
Brooks was first elected in 2012 in a newly-drawn district that was partially represented by longtime GOP Rep. Dan Burton, who decided not to seek re-election. Brooks, a former U.S. attorney who also headed up the state’s community college system, won a competitive GOP primary against former Rep. David McIntosh, who was the initial favorite. 

The congresswoman, who never dropped below 56 percent of the vote in her four races, carved out a moderate image in the House and is currently head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee. And there’s no shortage of candidates to replace her.  

The Republicans
As filing came to a close Feb. 7, Republicans were looking at a field of more than a dozen candidates.

One candidate would have overshadowed the rest of the field, but former state Rep. Steve Braun suspended his campaign in October for health reasons. He finished second in the 2018 GOP primary in the neighboring 4th District, and his brother Mike was elected to the Senate the same year by defeating Donnelly. 

Without Braun, Republicans are left with a muddled field in which no candidate has broken out from the rest of the pack. Barring a last-minute surprise at filing, the top contenders look like Dr. Chuck Dietzen, health case management company owner Beth Henderson and state Treasurer Kelly Mitchell.

Chuck Dietzen is new to the political scene in Indiana. He’s a physician, businessman, and founder of Timmy Global Health, which trains doctors to assist the poor in impoverished communities around the world. A few years ago, Dietzen talked about how his meeting with Mother Teresa in 1997 pushed him to start the non-profit group.

He’s made a positive impression with his start as a candidate. GOP sources talk about Dietzen as a candidate who could attract support from the social conservative and establishment wings of the Republican Party. 

Dietzen has support in the race from Jeff Cardwell, the former state Republican Party chairman who is close to Vice President Mike Pence, and former national committeeman Jim Bopp (including some talk of Bopp starting an outside group).

The Dietzen campaign team includes Axiom Strategies. 

As a first-time candidate, Dietzen starts with low name identification. He had the most money in the bank of any other GOP contender at the end of the year ($192,000) after raising $108,000 and contributing $120,000 of his own money through December. That personal money is a key factor in a race without a clear frontrunner. Dietzen had the opportunity to scare other candidates out of the race, but his end-of-the-year report won’t do it. 

One of the women in the race, Beth Henderson, is already on television with a 30-second ad, campaigning as a nurse, mother, and successful businesswoman. She founded The Rehab Connection, a medical case management firm, and co-founded Achieva, Inc., an agriculture technology training firm, with her husband Terry.

While this is Beth’s first run for office, Terry has been involved in politics for years. He considered a primary challenge to Brooks in 2018, ultimately decided to run for the U.S. Senate, and dropped out before the primary.

The Beth Henderson campaign team includes Rachael Coverdale and Rival Strategy Group as general consultants and Englehart Group for media.

She raised $117,000 through the end of the year, contributed nearly $80,000 of her own money, and had $139,000 in the bank on Dec. 31. According to local GOP sources, Henderson has told people that she would spend up to $600,000 of her own money in the race.

Based on the current field, that personal investment would have a significant impact, but it remains to be seen whether it will come to fruition. In 2018, Terry Henderson seeded his campaign with $300,000 in personal money (and raised $22,000). But he repaid himself $249,000 by the end of the campaign, so the ultimate family investment was smaller. 

As a female entrepreneur with experience in the healthcare and agriculture industries, Henderson appears to have the right profile for the district. But as a first-time candidate, it’s unclear whether she will put together the campaign and financing necessary to win. 

Kelly Mitchell, who earned degrees from Valparaiso Univ. (BA), IUPUI (MA) and U.S. Army War College (MA), is Indiana’s state treasurer after winning elections in 2014 (58 percent) and 2018 (59 percent). She is a former director of TrustINdiana and a former Cass County Commissioner. 

As a female statewide elected official seeking to replace a woman, Mitchell received most of the initial attention about the race. According to GOP sources, she would be an effective member of Congress but is not a dynamic candidate. 

The Mitchell campaign team includes general consultant Kory Wood of RightVoter, pollster Patrick Lanne of Public Opinion Strategies, and BrabenderCox for media. The latter and Mitchell’s fundraising team used to advise Brooks. 

Mitchell appears to be running as the heir apparent to Brooks, and has the advantage of running as a current elected official who has been active for 10 years. But she doesn’t have substantial pre-existing name identification or overwhelming fundraising that intimidated other people from running. Mitchell also doesn’t have experience running in competitive primaries because she won the treasurer nomination at a party convention decided by fewer than 1,500 people.

Mitchell raised $187,000 for the race in 2019, including $84,000 in the last three months of the year, and had $96,000 in the bank on Dec. 31. According to GOP sources, she tried to leverage her addition to the NRCC’s Young Guns list in October as evidence of establishment support, but Dietzen was added in January because he met the required thresholds as well. 

Mitchell has a moderate reputation, but there doesn’t appear to be many specifics that could become vulnerabilities in a GOP primary where everyone is running to be the most conservative candidate. If the primary becomes more divisive, her residency (she moved from the Indianapolis-based 7th District to the 5th) could be highlighted by critics. 

Micah Beckwith grew up in Hillsdale, Michigan, and earned degrees in business management and economics and finance from Huntington Univ. (located in the neighboring 3rd District, approximately 2,000 miles from California). He’s now a student worship pastor at Northview Church, a megachurch with multiple locations across north central Indiana, within and outside the 5th District. Beckwith’s wife Susan was Miss Indiana 2005, and his father invented Moose Tracks ice cream- a delicious combination of vanilla ice cream, mini peanut butter cups and Ryba’s Mackinac Island fudge- in 1993.
By working with former 3rd District Rep. Marlin Stutzman and meeting with Freedom Caucus members in Washington, D.C., Micah Beckwith generated some early buzz about his campaign. He also impressed some local Republicans with his army of volunteers at parades throughout last summer.

Beckwith’s campaign in recent months, however, has not inspired confidence, even to some people previously interested in his candidacy. He raised short of $10,000 in the last three months of 2019 and had $38,000 in the bank on Dec. 31. He raised a modest $95,000 total for the cycle through the end of the year. Additionally, the Beckwith campaign amended its third quarter FEC report three times, which is rare. 

Up to this point, Beckwith has been unable or unwilling to leverage his position at a large church into campaign dollars and support. In the fall, recently former head of the conservative Indiana Family Institute Curt Smith started a super PAC, Hoosier Heartland Fund, intent on boosting Beckwith. But it’s unclear whether it will have the resources to make an impact. 

The Beckwith campaign team includes Stutzman’s Capital Crossroads Consulting. Stutzman was also being introduced as a strategic advisor for the super PAC in October. 

State Sen. Victoria Spartz is poised to run as well. She’s a CPA who has worked for Fortune 200 companies and as CFO for the state attorney general’s office. The Spartz family has various real estate interests in the Noblesville area. Spartz has a reputation for being stridently conservative to the point of having very few allies in Indianapolis, even among Republicans. 

In order to secure the state senate nomination in 2017, Spartz won a caucus vote of 40 people on the ninth ballot, with significant help from the well-regarded outgoing state Sen. Luke Kenley. According to local GOP sources, Spartz was unlikely to survive a 2020 primary, so attempting to move up to Congress might be a better strategic calculation.

She’s told people she would spend up to $1 million of her own money, which would have a significant impact on the current field. But, candidly, Spartz is Ukrainian with a thick accent that would require creativity to handle in paid media, according to multiple GOP strategists interested in the race. 

Retired Army Lt. Col. Kent Abernathy, who served as state Motor Vehicles Commissioner under Gov. Mike Pence, is also running. But he’s not gaining much traction, according to GOP sources, and had $36,000 in the bank on Dec. 31. Some members of the Pence family actively recruited FOX59 evening news co-anchor Fanchon Stinger into the race, but she ultimately declined to run. 

In a surprise, former Marion County prosecutor Carl Brizzi filed to run. He was a serious political player a decade ago, but became more controversial in recent years. In 2017, he was suspended by the Indiana Supreme Court for professional misconduct.

The GOP Primary
With Steve Braun on the sidelines, Republicans have a crowded field without a clear frontrunner.

One of the biggest questions is money. None of the candidates have shown exceptional fundraising ability while a few candidates (Dietzen, Henderson and Spartz) have some personal resources. It’s unclear whether any of the wealthy candidates try to spend the minimal amount of money necessary to win, or spend “game-changing” money. 

According to one GOP strategist, there’s an opportunity for a candidate to immediately drop hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race to raise their name identification and essentially put the race away weeks before the May 5 primary. But no one has done that yet. If Henderson can build on her small, initial TV ad buy, she could emerge as the frontrunner. 

The crowded field, lack of a clear frontrunner and the winner-take-all primary, is tempting for outside groups to get involved. 

But after sparking some initial interest, Beckwith hasn’t met the threshold of viability that most outside groups look for before investing significant time and money into the race, even if they’ve been waiting on him. It’s also unclear whether Hoosier Heartland Fund, the super PAC formed to support him independently, has the resources to make a splash on his behalf.

The specific relationship between Stutzman, the Beckwith campaign, and the independent Hoosier Heartland Fund appears to be complicated. Stutzman’s Capital Crossroads Consulting, was paid $18,275 in 10 separate payments by the Beckwith campaign from Aug. 2 to Dec. 11. In the fall, Stutzman emailed an invitation to an Oct. 30 event in Indianapolis to introduce the Hoosier Heartland Fund, “one of only a few federal SuperPACs focused on Indiana campaigns and elections.” The event was hosted by Curt Smith and listed Stutzman as a special guest. The invitation also said, “Micah will join us for part of the lunch and explain further why he is running” and “Donations will be solicited” at the bottom of the email. 

Overall, GOP sources are skeptical that Beckwith’s play to social conservatives matches the DNA of the suburban district, even in the primary. 

Mitchell is regarded as an establishment candidate but without the heft of establishment support. GOP sources agree she’d be a fine general election candidate but question her primary strategy of sending out press releases with endorsements. Mitchell doesn’t have the pre-existing name ID or fundraising to run as if you were an incumbent.

Statewide office is not a launching pad in Indiana. Of the 53 state Treasurers in the history of the state, just two have ever been elected to a higher office, and both of them were state auditors, according to Capitol & Washington. That’s a small promotion if it is one. In 2016, state Attorney General Greg Zoeller finished third in the 9th District GOP primary with 22 percent, lagging behind state Sen. Erin Houchin (25 percent) and eventual-Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (34 percent), who had loose connections to Indiana but spent his own money and benefited from a super PAC funded by his father.
Mitchell’s path to victory might have been to be the only woman in the race. But with Henderson and Spartz, that’s not happening this time.

Spartz is a wild card in the race. With a combination of personal money and being able to communicate to her constituents with franked mail in the district, she could have an impact on a crowded race. But her personal style and conservatism could jeopardize the GOP’s hold on the seat in the general election. It could also keep groups focused on electing more women on the sidelines if it looks like there are multiple credible women in the race. Although VIEW PAC endorsed Mitchell on Thursday.

With multiple women in the race, it decreases the chances Republicans will nominate a woman to succeed Brooks and could diminish the female GOP ranks in the House even further. 
Brooks is one of 13 Republican women in the House including Jackie Walorski, who represents the neighboring 2nd District to the north, and Martha Roby of Alabama, who is not seeking re-election as well. In comparison, there are 88 Democratic women in the House.

Getting women through competitive GOP primaries is critical to maintaining and increasing the number of Republican women on the Hill. But primary voters are not motivated by gender diversity. It will likely take a group of donors who are interested in gender diversity, contributing to an outside group, which then boosts female candidates with traditionally conservative messages, instead of an explicit gender plea. Next year, Republicans might have the fewest number of women on the Hill in the House that they’ve had since the early 1990s, when there were just nine, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Although Dietzen might be one of the least-known candidates in Washington, he may be  best-positioned to bridge different factions of the Indiana GOP, if he can raise enough money or is willing to spend enough of his own.

A candidate could walk away with the nomination in Indiana’s 5th with a third of the vote or less in a field of 15 candidates. For example, in 2018, Jim Baird won a seven-way Republican primary in the 4th District with 37 percent. (Steve Braun finished second with 30 percent.) In 2016, Jim Banks won a six-way Republican primary in the 3rd District with 34 percent. And in 2012, Brooks won a seven-way Republican primary in the 5th with 30 percent. 

The Democrats
While Republicans sort through a crowded primary, former state Rep. Christina Hale is the likely Democratic nominee. She raised $270,000 in the last three months of the year, which was about double what the entire Republican field raised, excluding personal money. Hale raised $595,000 for the cycle through the end of December and finished the year with $419,000 in the bank. 

Hale is from Michigan City, graduated from Purdue Univ. (located in the neighboring 4th District) and worked as a reporter at the LaPorte Herald-Argus (north of the district along Lake Michigan). She subsequently worked at the state Department of Commerce, the Indiana Professional Standards Board and eventually for Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon.

Hale was elected to the state House in 2012 over GOP incumbent Cindy Noe, 50.1-49.9 percent- a margin of 51 votes out of 32,509. Hale had some help from redistricting and the top of the ticket. President Barack Obama simultaneously won her legislative district 49.95-48.41 percent, Democrat Joe Donnelly carried it 56-38 percent in the Senate race, and Democrat John Gregg won it 47.99-47.60 percent in the gubernatorial race, according to Daily Kos Elections. 

After winning re-election 51.5-48.5 percent in 2014, Hale dropped her 2016 re-election bid to join Gregg as the lieutenant governor nominee. The ticket lost statewide by 6 points and lost the 5th District by 7 points with Hillary Clinton getting pummeled at the top of the ballot. Before and after her elections, Hale has worked as an executive for Kiwanis International, which has its headquarters in Indianapolis. 

Hale said she planned to run for Congress before Brooks announced her retirement last June. The Hale campaign team includes Silversmith Strategies for media, GBA for polling, and Wildfire for direct mail. 

Hale will likely run as a one-time single mom who balanced going to college and raising a son. She’ll talk about working across the aisle and likely highlight her ability to bring together divergent groups. For example, in past races, she was endorsed by the AFL-CIO and Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Republicans are hoping that a competitive Democratic primary takes shape, but it doesn’t look likely. Corporate consultant/2018 nominee Dee Thornton had $52,000 in the bank on Dec. 31 and Jennifer Christie, who lost in the 2018 Democratic primary, had $7,000 at the end of the year.

How It Plays Out
Despite losing 40 House seats and getting crushed in the suburbs around the country in 2018, Republicans aren’t particularly concerned yet about losing the 5th District in 2020. And Democrats aren’t overly optimistic, even if they are encouraged by local election results in Marion, Hamilton, and Boone counties.

Democrats are committed to this district because they believe the long-term trends are still in their favor. In the short term, Hale could stand to benefit if the GOP nominates someone outside the mainstream such as Spartz or Beckwith. But neither of them is currently in the top tier for the nomination. 

The blueprint for Hale was drawn by Donnelly, who carried the district twice. Republicans, however, are skeptical that she will run the campaign necessary to replicate his success.

“Socialists want to turn healthcare over to the government,” the narrator said in a 2018 Donnelly ad. “Over my dead body,” replied Donnelly.  “The Radical Left wants to eliminate ICE,” the narrator continued. “I support ICE and funding President Trump’s border wall,” said Donnelly, who also quoted former Republican President Ronald Reagan at the end of the 30-second spot. 

Hale will certainly run as a lawmaker who has and will work across the aisle. But going as far as Donnelly to invoke cooperation with Trump would be unusual for a mainstream Democratic candidate.
In a close race, candidate quality could matter. Hale has experience as a candidate and elected official. She’s also shown a remarkable ability to give non-specific answers to key questions up to this point in the campaign. It’s frustrating some Republicans but can be a good quality for a candidate. Mitchell has some experience in the public eye, while it’s Henderson’s first run for office. Dietzen has received good initial reviews, but he’s a first-time candidate as well and could hit some hurdles along the way. Overall, the early May primary should allow the eventual nominee to regroup for the general election.

Republicans can’t afford to let Hale define herself and the terms of the race. But if Democrats nominate a more progressive presidential nominee, such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, that will likely overshadow Hale anyway. With Gov. Eric Holcomb cruising to re-election, GOP strategists are also hoping to benefit from his investment in turning out voters.

Ultimately, Republicans will most likely hold the district, but the party may end up having to spend outside money from the NRCC or Congressional Leadership Fund to lock it down. That’s not the end of the world, but it would take resources from races where Republicans are on offense and need to win to gain seats and get back to the majority. 

The Bottom Line
Indiana’s 5th is currently in the top of the third tier of Democratic takeover opportunities, along with races in Missouri’s 2nd (currently represented by Ann Wagner) and Washington’s 3rd (represented by Jaime Herrera Beutler). These are districts where Republicans have the advantage, but could get considerably more vulnerable or drop off the list of competitive races altogether, depending on the national political environment and outlook of the presidential race. 

If President Trump wins the 5th again by close to 10 points, it’s unlikely Democrats will win an open-seat House race farther down the ballot. While the Indianapolis suburbs are trending Democratic, they are still more conservative than the Chicago suburbs or Orange County, California. And the traditionally Democratic, blue-collar parts of the 5th are turning red. 

The 5th District race is also an example of where Republicans could win by holding the seat, but lose by decreasing their number of women on the Hill.