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Wednesday, May 04, 2016 10:22 pm

Democrats won't support their Congressional candidate

Brian Francisco|Washington editor

Democrats in northeast Indiana apparently have nominated a Donald Trump supporter as their congressional candidate.

Tommy A. Schrader of Fort Wayne emerged Tuesday from a three-way contest of little-known candidates, winning 37.5 percent of the vote in the Democratic Party's primary election.

Schrader, a perennial candidate who captured his first congressional nomination in five attempts, did not publicly campaign or report raising money for the race.

On March 31, Schrader called The Journal Gazette from a Starbucks and left this message: "I was thinking about endorsing Donald Trump because he's pro-life and he speaks the truth."

Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for president after defeating Texas Sen. Cruz in the Indiana primary.

Schrader will face GOP state Sen. Jim Banks, a commercial real estate broker from Columbia City, in the November general election in the heavily Republican 3rd District. As he always does, Schrader will go it alone. 

"The Third District Democratic Party Committee will not be supporting the candidacy of Tommy Schrader as he progresses into the general election. I congratulate Jim Banks on his victory, and I hope that he will represent Northeastern Indiana in a way that improves the lives of families and communities," Carmen Darland, the 3rd District Democratic chairwoman, said Tuesday night in an email.

A spokesman for the Indiana Democratic Party declined to comment Wednesday about Schrader's nomination.

The district and state Democratic organizations had endorsed Huntington gaming store owner Todd Nightenhelser for Congress ahead of Tuesday's election. Nightenhelser received 31.8 percent of the vote, and third-place finisher John Forrest Roberson received 30.7 percent.

"There was a possibility for this to happen," Nightenhelser said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "Mr. Schrader has run several times and has some minor recognition that way, as well as the Schrader name up north is well known from various business entities that carry that name. As far as I know, they are not related in any way."

Schrader Real Estate and Auction Co., based in Columbia City, operates throughout northeast Indiana. 

"Schrader is a name associated with a successful business in Northeastern Indiana, and name identification was an issue for the people that voted Tuesday," Darland said.

Among other businesses using the Schrader name in the 3rd District are a stock yard, an insurance agent and an auto parts store.

Tommy Schrader, 53, has said when he ran for Congress in 2014 that he does not work because of a disability. He reportedly lives in a motel.

Nightenhelser said he had attended Democratic Party gatherings for eight months, handed out 11,000 business cards and shook the hands of 3,000 people at Monday's rally in Fort Wayne for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

"I definitely did my part," he said.

But Nightenhelser had raised only $837 in campaign contributions as of March 31 and had spent only $261 by that date, according to his first-quarter campaign finance report. He said he ended up raising more money in recent weeks.

"When you have money, you get more; if you don't have money, you get none," he said about trying to attract contributions from donors. 

Darland pointed out that former state lawmaker David Orentlicher raised roughly $210,000 but appears to have lost the Democratic nomination in southwest Indiana's 8th Congressional District to Ron Drake, who raised $2,700. Drake led Orentlicher by 61 votes.

Schrader came close to winning the Democratic nomination in the 3rd District in 2014. He lost by 88 votes – a 1 percent margin – to Justin Kuhnle. As on Tuesday, the 2014 field consisted of three relatively unknown, unfunded candidates, and their vote totals varied little.

Schrader also sought the congressional nomination in 2012, 2010 and 2006. He has run for Fort Wayne mayor, City Council and, as a Republican, for city clerk. He won a City Council primary election as a Democrat in 2011 but was disqualified later because he had registered to vote in Wisconsin while on vacation there.

bfrancisco@jg.net