‘Huge shift’: Incumbent exits prompt crowded U.S. House primary races

By: | Indiana Capital Chronicle

For The Republic

INDIANAPOLIS — Nab a seat in Congress once and you’re likely to win reelection again and again, challengers or not. But three of Indiana’s nine congressional seats are guaranteed to change hands following this year’s elections.

That’s because incumbent Reps. Jim Banks, Larry Bucshon and Greg Pence — all Republicans — are leaving their spots in the U.S. House for other pursuits. And Rep. Victoria Spartz said she wouldn’t seek reelection but reversed her decision just ahead of filing deadlines.

Laura Merrifield Wilson. 

The exit announcements have prompted dozens of Hoosier hopefuls to put their names on the primary election ballot. Election Day is May 7.

Open seats attract a bevy of competitive candidates because “they recognize this is the opportunity to get in” to office, said Laura Merrifield Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Indianapolis.

Incumbents often enjoy major advantages: stockpiled donations, political connections, an experienced campaign team and more. In Congress, the incumbent typically wins nine out of 10 times, according to Wilson.

Turnover is typically limited. But the number of open seats will spur more change in Indiana.

The turnover within the Hoosier congressional delegation could be the most significant “in a long time,” said Mike Wolf, acting director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Michael Wolf. 

“That’s kind of a big deal when we think about what it means for representative democracy. It’s a huge shift here,” he added.

And it’s a shift largely decided during the primary.

Indiana lawmakers further strengthened the relatively safe districts during redistricting in 2021, advantaging Democrats in two districts and Republicans in the rest.

“This is where the race is,” Wilson said of the primary. “This is where the competition is!”


Third Congressional District


Banks was the first to announce that he’d leave his safely red seat in northeastern Indiana to pursue the U.S. Senate. He made it official in January last year.

Eight Republicans hope to succeed him, along with two Democrats.

Other races:

  • C.D. 1: Incumbent Democrat Rep. Frank Mrvan faces no primary competition. Republicans Mark Levya, Randy Niemeyer and Ben Ruiz will compete in the GOP primary.
  • C.D. 2: Incumbent Republican Rep. Rudy Yakym faces no primary competition and neither does Democrat Lori Camp.
  • C.D. 4: Incumbent Republican Rep. Jim Baird faces Charles Bookwalter and John Piper, while Democrats Rimpi Girn and Derrick Holder will face off.
  • C.D. 7: Incumbent Democrat André Carson faces Curtis Godfrey and Pierre Quincy Pullins. Four Republicans will compete: Philip Davis, Jenn Pace, Cat Ping and Gabe Whitley.
  • C.D. 9: Incumbent Republican Rep. Erin Houchin faces Hugh Doty. Democrats D. Liam Dorris and Tim Peck will compete.

“I think in some ways that’s an advantage to candidates because they’ve had a running head start, if you will,” Wilson said.

They’re pulling out all the stops — and lines of credit.

Tim Smith — who leads a “Christ-centered family services provider” and promises to “end wokeness,” according to his campaign website — leads the pack in fundraising. He boasted more than $1 million in contributions as of December 2023, per Federal Election Commission (FEC) data. But Smith himself loaned $900,000 of that total to his campaign.

Former Allen County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Davis — whose campaign materials denounce unauthorized immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border and push back against “woke ideology” — tails Smith with $676,000 raised as of last year. About $83,000 of it is a personal loan, according to FEC data.

State Sen. Andy Zay follows with nearly $547,000 raised, including a $100,000 personal loan, per the FEC. During his eight-year tenure, Zay has emphasized border security and a Catholicism-driven anti-abortion stance.

Marlin Stutzman, who previously represented the Third from 2010 to 2017, has raised $482,000, including a personal loan of $250,000, via the FEC. The fourth-generation farmer and business-owner has highlighted an “America First” perspective and criticized federal handling of the economy, education, immigration and more.

Construction project manager Grant Bucher, veteran-turned-congressional-staffer Jon Kenworthy, maintenance technician Mike Felker and manufacturing-industry worker Eric Whalen round out the crowded Republican ballot.

Hoosiers pulling Democratic ballots will see two names: farmer and educator Phil Goss, and consultant Kiley Adolph. Goss has taken in $192,000, according to the FEC, but he owes his campaign $184,000. Adolph reported raising nearly $16,000 but has taken out no loans.

The Democrats spoke at an April 6 forum hosted by the Fort Wayne Media Collective and the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics.

Huntington University hosted a debate between all the Republican candidates on April 8. They’ll also appear at a co-hosted forum April 14. The center will additionally put on a debate featuring the top four GOP candidates — Davis, Smith, Stutzman and Zay — on April 17, according to WANE.


Fifth Congressional District


Incumbent Spartz’s decision to retire from Congress launched a busy rush for the ballot, but her eleventh-hour reversal a year later swayed none in the running for the red central Indiana seat.

“She’s probably made some enemies in the party. I’m absolutely sure of it after (she) announced retirement — so people see this as an open seat, (they’re) ready to move in — and then … mind changed,” Wilson said.

“That is a huge challenge to her,” Wilson added. “This did not have to be competitive.”

But the race appears to be up for grabs.

A Spartz-commissioned poll by co/efficient, released February 1, found the incumbent leading 44% to state Rep. Chuck Goodrich’s 8% and other candidates at or below 1%.

A February poll Goodrich commissioned from Mark it Red told a similar story: Spartz leading at 47% to his 15%. But Goodrich’s March 27 poll showed the duo in a dead heat: Spartz polled at 33%, Goodrich at 30%, and a margin of error slightly above 3%.

He has also accused Ukrainian-born Spartz of putting “Ukraine first” by prioritizing aid for the war-torn country over border funding. Spartz has rejected that, The Washington Post reported.

Goodrich, who owns and leads Gaylor Electric, reported a fundraising haul of $1.7 million at the end of December, according to the FEC. That includes a $1 million loan.

He leads the pack in receipts. He’s followed by speech-language pathologist Raju Chinthala ($206,000; no loans) and former congressional staffer Max Engling ($128,000; no loans).

Tailing them are lawyer Mark Hurt and veteran L.D. Powell. Foster care reform advocate Matthew Peiffer and certified public accountant Patrick Malayter had no contributions in the FEC’s database. Property manager Larry Savage and Spartz herself didn’t appear in the list.

Some previously supported Spartz but now challenge her. Savage, for instance, told Current in Carmel that he joined the race, in part, “to try to fix her mistakes.”

“For these up-and-coming candidates who probably thought they had a clear run, at least among each other, what has to happen is a particular amount of negativity,” Wolf said.

“They have to provide a Republican primary electorate a reason to vote against somebody who they voted for before,” he added.

Just two Democrats will vie for their party’s nomination: Technology entrepreneur Ryan Pfenninger and community activist Deborah Pickett. Neither had fundraising totals available in the database.


Sixth Congressional District


Pence, the brother of former Indiana Gov. and Vice President Mike Pence, announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in January. Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, a gubernatorial candidate, previously asked him to consider being her running-mate, The Republic reported.

Seven Republicans made the ballot to take over the safe GOP district, which includes parts of central and eastern Indiana. But the top fundraiser didn’t meet candidacy requirements.

The bipartisan Indiana Election Commission removed trucking company owner Sid Mahant from the ballot in February after the Sixth’s 11 GOP party chairs united to file a challenge. Indiana law requires primary candidates to have pulled that party’s ballot in two previous elections, but Mahant only had one on his voting record.

That came after Mahant loaned his campaign a stunning $2 million.

His removal from the ballot has opened the door for a list of candidates well-known around the city of Indianapolis and at the Statehouse. The FEC has little data for them, however.

Wealthy businessman Jefferson Shreve, who last year lost his bid for Indianapolis mayor, is also trying his hand on a bigger stage. Shreve put a mammoth $13.5 million of his own fortune into that failed campaign, according to Marion County Election Board campaign finance data.

“This is an area … dominated by the Indianapolis media. … His name has been around the entire district,” Wolf noted.

But the district’s deep-red primary electorate has forced Shreve to reestablish his conservative credentials after softening his messaging for a majority-blue metropolitan general election, according to Wolf.

Several incumbent and former state lawmakers also come with name recognition.

Rep. Mike Speedy, a real estate developer, has co-authored several firearm privacy, anti-“woke” pension investing and election security proposals in recent years. Americans for Prosperity Action endorsed Speedy for the spot on Wednesday.

Sen. Jeff Raatz, a business-owner, has specialized in education legislation — including attempts to promote reading proficiency and let schools hire chaplains as counselors.

They’re joined by former Rep. John Jacob, a devout anti-abortion activist who at times alienated members of his own party — like when he unsuccessfully pushed his then-colleagues to strip exceptions from a near-total abortion ban approved in 2023. The GOP backed a political newcomer to upset his reelection campaign that year, and he lost his most recent attempt to return to the Statehouse in a landslide caucus vote.

“I’m sure there’s a part of that electoral bloc that … would find that really appealing,” Wilson said. “But I also don’t know that he has the funding or financial support to convey that message.”

Other candidates come from further afield.

Jamison Carrier, a self-proclaimed “Trump Republican,” emphasizes the border fight on his campaign website, detailing the impacts of factory closures as companies offshored and the death of his son from fentanyl poisoning.

Wayne County Republican Darin Childress and veteran-turned-businessman Bill Frazier are also in the mix.

Democrat Cynthia (Cinde) Wirth, a teacher and policy writer focusing on affordable health care, improved public education and job creation, faces no primary competition.


Eighth Congressional District


Bucshon announced he’d leave his safe Republican seat in early January, drawing a whopping 14 candidates. The district is located in southwestern Indiana.

Among them are John Hostettler, who previously represented the district from 1995 until 2007 and is hoping for a comeback.

But he’s already facing pushback from the Republican Jewish Coalition and the United Democracy Project, a super-PAC tied to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

They have attacked his record on Israel-related issues. The coalition has gone as far as airing ads in support of another candidate: state Sen. Mark Messmer.

Messmer, meanwhile, has been outspoken in his support for that country in addition to a heavy emphasis on border security.

Other GOP candidates include:

  • Jim “JustIN” Case, who says he’s running for the “silent majority (and) the forgotten” on his campaign website, and Jeremy Heath, who’s previously run for several state offices, according to Ballotpedia.
  • Dominick Kavanaugh, a U.S. Army reservist who previously worked on Donald Trump’s campaign and administration, WIBC reports.
  • Luke Misner, who emphasizes his support for coal and agriculture on his campaign Facebook page.
  • Richard Moss, a surgeon who says he’ll fight with Trump to “save America” on his campaign website.
  • Kristi Risk, a confection manufacturer who chairs the Owen County Republican Party and unsuccessfully challenged Bucshon in 2012.

Five more candidates will compete on the Democratic ballot:

  • Erik Hurt, who highlights support for workers’ rights, taxes on the wealthy and public education on his campaign website.
  • Veteran Peter Priest II, who unsuccessfully sought his party’s nomination to the seat in 2022. Among his campaign planks at that time was vaccine skepticism, according to Ballotpedia.
  • Edward Upton Sein, a musician and guitar salesman who told Ballotpedia he’s passionate about public education, gun legislation reform and immigration reform.
  • Michael Talarzyk, who told Ballotpedia he’s a school bus driver that cares about health care and infrastructure.

Wilson called the district’s “generally less competitive candidates” a defining feature of the race.

“You do have a mix of people … but no super big heavy hitters,” she said.


— The Indiana Capital Chronicle covers state government and the state legislature. For more, visit indianacapitalchronicle.com.