Republican Dan Coats tells voters they cant change Washington without making a change; Democrat Brad Ellsworth argues that a former senator-turned-lobbyist personifies what is wrong with the political class.
Voters will choose between those synopses Tuesday when they pick the person who will represent Indiana in the Senate for the next six years.
Coats victory would move the Senate closer to a Republican majority that is resolved to block President Obamas agenda. Ellsworths victory would remove him from the House, where he has been an occasional thorn in Speaker Nancy Pelosis side, and keep the seat in the Democratic column.
Ellsworth and Coats are vying to replace Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, who has held the seat for 12 years but decided not to run for re-election this year. Bayh was first elected in 1998 when Coats, who held the seat for 10 years in the 1990s, decided to retire from the Senate. Libertarian Rebecca Sink-Burris is also on the ballot. In statewide polls, she attracts less than 10 percent of voters support.
Before his decade in the Senate, Coats was the northeast Indiana House representative for eight years, following Dan Quayle into both seats. When he left the Senate, Coats became a lobbyist. He interrupted that career to serve as President Bushs ambassador to Germany and resumed lobbying after returning to the U.S.
Ellsworth has hammered at Coats lobbying career. I dont know how hes going to cast a vote in the Senate without a conflict of interest, he said at one of the three debates. Ellsworths TV commercials say Coats lobbied for clients whose interests are contrary to whats best for Indiana, including the cap-and-trade energy program that would increase costs on coal-fired power plants.
Coats, 67, has not masked his frustration with this interpretation of his lobbying.
If hes elected, Coats said, Ill have one client. Its like a dad being asked to umpire and his son comes up (to bat). You want to make sure that on that one, you call the balls and strikes correctly and not show favoritism, because you know everybody out there is watching.
Coats said the clients he represented are the same people who meet with Brad Ellsworth every day. They make their points. The people on the other side of the competitive arena make their points. Its up to the congressman to make the decision. Essentially what Brad Ellsworths saying is hes so vulnerable, so susceptible to somebody that might have an interest in the client theyre representing, that he just cant resist it.
Ellsworth said former members of Congress should not be allowed to lobby the federal government – ever. He has criticized Coats for employing the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street, where many lobbying firms are located.
Coats disagrees. I think once people leave Congress, they shouldnt be excluded from a particular type of work, he said.
Ellsworth said its not below-the-belt campaigning to identify Coats lobbying clients and question whether earning hundreds of thousands of dollars working on their behalf would influence his actions in the Senate.
We cant just rewrite history, Ellsworth said. We cant just say, My last 20 years or 30 years didnt exist. This isnt mudslinging, because people are making an important decision about who they are going to send to the Senate.
Ellsworth, 52, is a two-term congressman from the Evansville area. He entered Congress after a 25-year law enforcement career in Vanderburgh County, including two terms as sheriff.
He aligned himself with the conservative caucus of House Democrats, the group called the Blue Dog Democrats that has sometimes frustrated Pelosi for its insistence on scaling back the cost of legislative proposals.
Ellsworth opposes abortion and withheld his support for the health insurance overhaul legislation until he was assured that tax money would not be used to pay for abortion. He was the leader among a group of lawmakers who refused to support the bill until their concerns were satisfied.
He opposes limits on gun ownership and does not support a national energy strategy that would tax coal-burning power plants as a way to force them into polluting less, even when Obama called him. I told him no; it wasnt right for Indiana, Ellsworth said.
As a result, the number of times Ellsworth votes against the majority of his party is among the highest in the House.
In 2007 and 2009, Ellsworth voted with the majority of the Democratic Party 78 percent of the time, while the average Democratic House members party loyalty was 92 percent. In 2008, he voted with Democrats 85 percent of the time, while the average also was 92 percent.
Only a handful of Democrats voted with Republicans more often than Ellsworth.
But Coats looks at it another way, saying Ellsworth votes with Nancy Pelosi nearly 90 percent of the time.
For that reason, Coats tells voters, if they are unhappy with the direction the country is going – a recent poll sponsored by the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics found that nearly three of every four Hoosier voters say the U.S. is on the wrong track – they should pick a senator who wasnt part of the policies of the past two years.
Coats said he represents change and has changed himself from his 10-year period in the Senate, when he was most known for leadership on social issues. He advocated giving the states the power to block out-of-state trash hauled to private landfills, a change in adoption policies, a ban on military service for gay people, vouchers for private schools, a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in public schools, legislation to ban obscenity and indecency on the Internet.
He also was one of the most vocal advocates of the line-item veto – which gives presidents the power to kill some aspects of a spending bill without vetoing the whole thing. Coats said another term in the Senate would find him focusing more on fiscal matters than social issues.
I hope to do a lot of things differently this time around, he said. Hoosiers want action now. . They want to stop this spending.
He said he would support across-the-board cuts of 5 percent to 10 percent in all areas except the Pentagon, veterans benefits and homeland security. The agencies that remain make up about 20 percent of the non-entitlement budget.
Coats said he doesnt support changing the Social Security system for people who receive benefits and are nearing retirement, but he thinks a major structural change is needed for others. He said he would consider supporting an increase in the age that people can begin receiving benefits.
Ellsworth said he does not support a higher retirement age. Seventy isnt that old, he said, and raising the retirement age would be fine for those who work at desks, but its not fine for somebody whos on the end of a jackhammer.
Both candidates say the immediate need is to create jobs. They agree that allowing the tax cuts to expire at the end of the year is the wrong thing to do and that easing taxes for business will lead to job creation.
But Coats says Ellsworth cant really claim the credentials of a fiscal conservative because he voted for the health insurance overhaul, the stimulus program and the bailouts of the financial and auto-making industries.
Ellsworth said it was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who asked Congress to approve the program because the U.S. economy was about to go over a cliff.
In an emergency, sometimes you have to take drastic measures, he said, and I think thats what we did with the stimulus plan to save the economy and keep as many jobs as possible.