Now in his 14th term, Republican Rep. Dan Burton is accustomed to easy victories. One of the most conservative members in the House, he has repeatedly garnered overwhelming support from voters in his central Indiana district — until 2008, when a strong challenger nearly defeated him in the Republican primary.
This year, smelling blood in the water, at least four GOP contenders are coming after Burton. The 5th District — the state’s wealthiest — stretches from the affluent suburbs around Indianapolis up through the rich farmland in the northern part of the state, and the victor in the May 4, 2010, primary should have a clear path to Washington; in the 2008 presidential race, Republican John McCain took 59 percent of the district’s vote.
Burton’s challengers include Luke Messer, a lawyer and former state representative; Brose McVey, a businessman and unsuccessful contender for another Indiana congressional seat in 2002; state Rep. Mike Murphy; and John McGoff, an emergency room physician who came close to unseating Burton in the 2008 primary.
Burton has not yet formally announced his candidacy, but has indicated to supporters that he is indeed running again. The most recent campaign finance reports, dated June 30, show that he has more than twice the cash on hand as any of his opponents — but Messer was only about $48,000 behind in the first six months of fundraising for the year.
“Each of these challengers has a following of their own and are able to raise a good sum of money,” said former Lt. Gov. John Mutz, a fellow Republican who served in the state legislature with Burton. “I guess what I would say is that the last election would have been the first time that I have seen that Dan appears to be vulnerable.”
A close call
In the 2008 primary, Burton defeated McGoff by only 6.8 percentage points — a stark contrast to the primaries in 2006, when he boasted a 74.6 percentage-point lead over his nearest challenger, and 2004, when he won by 77.2 percentage points.
“Now there’s been an awakening within the party that, oh boy, this congressman really hasn’t done a good job for us,” said McGoff, explaining his second bid for the seat.
Burton’s actions have drawn negative attention over the years. In June, for example, he was widely viewed as an alarmist for urging the House to thwart terrorist attacks by encasing the visitors’ gallery in Plexiglas. In 2007, he was the only member of either party to vote against a House ethics package.
In 1998, as he was leading an investigation into President Clinton’s coverup of a sexual relationship with an intern, Burton was forced to acknowledge that he had fathered a child out of wedlock in the 1980s. And following the 1994 suicide of Clinton’s White House counsel, Vincent W. Foster Jr., he took up the cause of conspiracy theorists who contended that Foster was murdered — and even conducted his own investigation by firing a gun into what he would describe only as a “head-like object” (reportedly either a pumpkin or a watermelon) in his back yard.
On the plus side, Burton has a reputation for strong constituent service, said Brian Vargus, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who lives in the district.
“But when people saw McGoff coming close to him and given that he was embarrassing because of some things — particularly the conspiracy stuff, the illegitimate child and other off-the-cuff remarks — people started looking at [the race],” Vargus added.
Conventional political wisdom has it that to unseat Burton, the opposition should unite behind one candidate — but that’s unlikely to happen so early in the primary season. “While those who would want to see change would all be served by narrowing the field, there is no shortcut or silver bullet to do that,” Messer said.
Attempt at unity
However, a power broker in the Indiana GOP — P.E. MacAllister, chairman of MacAllister Machinery in Indianapolis — is attempting to do just that. On July 1 he sent a letter to McGoff, requesting a “screening” in front of “party stalwarts” to determine the best candidate to challenge Burton.
In the letter, MacAllister said he was hoping to avoid “the typical primary brawl and leaving the landscape littered with dying and wounded; the party unhappy with the exercise; further compounded by dollars expended in the process and the tank empty when the real race starts.”
According to the letter, Messer “nodded assent” to the process. McVey, the founder of a consulting firm, “agreed in principle.”
McGoff came out strongly against the letter during a July 9 news conference, calling it a “scheme” to maintain party unity and a plan that is “side-stepping the voters in the district.”
But Mutz, the former lieutenant governor, and others see the field as narrowing down on its own after some time. “I think it’s likely, once we start getting some opinion polls that begin to show some distance between the candidates,” he said.
Tough time to raise money
Among the challengers, Messer has raised the most money — a little more than $200,000 in the first six months of this year. But fundraising hasn’t been easy, given the number of candidates and the state of the economy. McVey called it a “brutal environment.” Murphy said he has been successful, but has felt the pinch.
“I can tell you that I have not yet been turned down by anyone when I’ve sat down, one on one, and asked for contributions,” he said. “ ... But people would say, ‘I would have given you X amount and now I’ll give you Z.’”
Still, they are not discouraged — in fact, they are encouraged by the frustration they say they have found with both Burton and the state’s Republican Party.
The district’s constituents, said McVey, “are terribly frustrated with politics as usual.”
And, Messer noted, “What we hear over and over again is that people want to see the Republican Party return to its roots of limited government, fiscal discipline, lower taxes. They are ready for the next generation of conservative leaders to present that message ... If we are going to restore the credibility of our own party, we need to have our own version of reform.”