ROANOKE – U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman announced Saturday he will run for a Senate seat next year, and he left no doubt about where he fits on the political spectrum.
"I will never apologize for being God-fearing, gun-packing, commonsense conservative," he told hundreds of supporters at his campaign kick-off rally.
Stutzman, R-3rd, criticized the Obama administration for half of the $18 trillion national debt, the federal health care law and government regulations he said stifle economic growth.
"This big-government abuse must stop," the fifth-year representative said from a stage set up in the middle of Main Street in downtown Roanoke.
Stutzman took on unnamed moderates in his own party: "The letter after your name on the ballot doesn't matter if your voting record doesn't match up to it."
On the international front, he said he is committed "to our friends and allies, especially Israel."
Toward the end of his speech, the LaGrange County corn and soybean farmer said: "We want right now, from this downtown in Roanoke, a message sent to downtown Washington, D.C., that it's time to cut the federal government back down to the original piece of parchment that it was written on."
Stutzman, 38, seeks the seat held by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. Coats, who turns 72 this month, announced March 24 that he will not run for a second consecutive term in 2016.
Stutzman and Eric Holcomb, a former Indiana Republican Party chairman and ex-aide to Coats, are the only announced candidates for the seat. Reps. Todd Young, R-9th, and Todd Rokita, R-4th, are considering running in the Republican primary, and former Rep. Baron Hill, who lost to Young in the 2010 House election, has said he might seek the Democratic nomination.
Steve Shine, chairman of the Allen County Republican Party, said in an interview at Saturday's rally that GOP primaries "are traditionally conservative-oriented results. If the conservative vote is not split among a multitude of conservative candidates, I have a belief that Marlin will win the primary."
Asked whether he is endorsing Stutzman, Shine said: "From a personal standpoint, I endorse Marlin Stutzman. I cannot speak for the party as a whole."
After the rally – which featured music performed by the Goshen Middle School orchestra and the mostly African-American Voices of Unity choir from Fort Wayne – The Journal Gazette asked Stutzman why he is giving up a safely Republican House seat for what is certain to be a competitive and expensive primary-election campaign, and perhaps general-election contest, for the Senate.
"The risk may be great, but I think that it's going to be worth the opportunity to serve in the Senate," he said, pointing out that Coats and Republican Dan Quayle were first elected to the Senate from the northeast Indiana congressional seat.
Stutzman, a Howe resident, has been Indiana's most conservative congressman since he took office in 2011, according to vote ratings by various special-interest groups. He has been an advocate for gun rights and non-military federal spending cuts and an opponent of abortion rights, the Affordable Care Act, federal regulatory agencies and White House immigration policies. In 2013, he led an ultimately unsuccessful fight to strip food stamps from the farm bill.
Along the way, he has jousted with leaders of his own party. In December, he accused House leadership of misleading him into casting a deciding vote for a spending bill he disliked. In January, he was among 25 Republicans to vote against the re-election of Ohio Rep. John Boehner as House speaker.
Asked how much his clashes with House leaders factored into his decision to run for the Senate, Stutzman said Saturday: "Not much at all. I just see that the Senate is a place I can serve the entire state of Indiana. I've always communicated with leadership. I've told them where I've been at (on legislation). We have accomplished a lot of things together."
His wife, Christy, earlier told the Roanoke crowd: "He's risked position and title in D.C. because he was willing to try to change a corrupt and broken system. He has been able to stand strong even when it means standing alone."
Their two sons, Preston and Payton, led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Monica Boyer, a tea party leader from Kosciusko County and Stutzman supporter, said in an interview that Stutzman's voting record "is going to speak for itself" and that his vote against Boehner as speaker appeals to conservatives statewide.
"People are so tired of hearing the rhetoric. They're so tired of hearing what the politician will do," Boyer said. "They can see (votes) with Marlin. I can go back to my base and say, 'Here is Marlin's vote.' "
John Zody, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, said in an emailed statement that Stutzman "has a record of working to deny assistance to Hoosier families while helping himself with farm subsidies and helping shut down the government when he didn't get his way."
Stutzman has repeatedly acknowledged receiving farm subsidies. Describing the GOP's position on the budget stalemate that shut down parts of the government in 2013, he became a media poster boy for partisan gridlock by telling a reporter: "We're not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is."
Stutzman's announcement could set off a scramble for his House seat, with state Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, considered the early favorite by GOP insiders. Shine said Banks will announce his candidacy Tuesday in Fort Wayne, and Banks confirmed that plan in a Facebook message to The Journal Gazette.
This will be the second time that Stutzman has run for the Senate. In his first campaign, in 2010, he was hoping to unseat Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. But the incumbent decided against seeking re-election, prompting Coats to move from Virginia to Indiana to run for the seat he retired from in 1998, the year Bayh was elected.
Then a state senator, Stutzman attracted 29 percent of the vote in a crowded Republican primary field to finish second to Coats, who received 39 percent. Weeks later, GOP officials in the 3rd Congressional District chose Stutzman as their House nominee to replace veteran Rep. Mark Souder, who had resigned after acknowledging a sexual relationship with a woman on his staff.
Stutzman won that fall's general election and was re-elected in 2012 and 2014. He never collected less than 63 percent of the vote in his House general elections.