Why economy is key in Indiana election

The GOP incumbent trails by 3 points here. The loss of jobs and high property taxes are among voters' concerns.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Evelyn Salyer is the kind of voter Republicans desperately need to hang onto this fall.

In 2004, her vote helped push a Republican House member toward a narrow reelection win in this northern Indiana district. Now, with a new election just days away, she hasn't made up her mind.

The candidates are the same two men who ran last time. Their battle for blue-collar voters is lug-wrench tight. And Ms. Salyer cites economic concerns among the mix of issues that make her reluctant to commit her vote.

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Although Iraq comes first, immigration and her own cost of living are close behind.

"We should be taking care of our people here" rather than spending abroad, says Salyer, who worked for years at a local bank and lives mostly on Social Security.

It's a refrain echoed by many voters in this region where bedrock jobs in heavy industry are being shaken anew by the current downsizing of US automakers.

"People who live in the Midwest are more negative about the economy" than voters in other regions are, says Scott Keeter, who directs voter surveys at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington. Tight races in the region "could certainly be affected by this."

Nationwide, voters who are concerned about the economy are likely to vote Democratic in this election, says Mr. Keeter.

Their ranks are sizable. In a late-October Pew survey, 20 percent of registered voters said the economy is the most important issue in their vote for Congress, second only to the 27 percent who cited the situation in Iraq.

Indiana's Second Congressional District, anchored by the city of South Bend, exemplifies how economic concerns have emerged as significant in some races. It is among a relative handful of contests on which control of the House of Representatives could hinge. Democrats need a gain of 15 seats, out of 435 total, for control.

In the Second District, Democratic challenger Joe Donnelly is leading GOP Rep. Chris Chocola 48 percent to 45 percent, according to a poll from RT Strategies released last week.

"Bad and getting worse," is how Juli Tate, who works as an administrative assistant University of Notre Dame, describes the local economy. "We're losing jobs," she says. "Young people are dropping out of school."

As she walks near the campus's gold dome, she says she'll vote for Mr. Donnelly. Representative Chocola is "not doing anything for Indiana as far as I can see," she says.

South Bend has more than its share of boarded-up storefronts, and the city's jobless rate is 5.1 percent, above the national rate of 4.6 percent. The city has been adapting to the loss of automotive jobs since the 1960s, when Studebaker closed an assembly line here.

But conditions aren't all bleak. Several medical centers, and Notre Dame just north of the city, have provided service sector jobs.

Indiana's automotive sector is doing better than Michigan's. The state has had success luring foreign manufacturers such as Honda. The AM General plant next door to South Bend, in Mishawaka, continues to crank out Humvees for the US military, even though $2-a-gallon gasoline has crimped demand for the civilian Hummer.

Still, this area feels the pressure of pocketbook issues. People complain about a spike in property taxes. And at a time of concern about global competition, they're angry that the state recently moved to lease a key toll road to a foreign consortium. Mr. Chocola had no direct say on either of those matters, but that doesn't mean he can escape voter frustration.

In the nearby city of Kokomo, at the southern edge of this district, auto-parts giant Delphi plans to shed hundreds of workers soon. To emerge from bankruptcy, the company says it will have to cut worker pay.

Such challenges make the economy a big issue for Dale Cooper, who retired from a union job at Bendix, a brake manufacturer, which was once one of South Bend's biggest employers.

"You have many people working, but they're making less money," he says. "It's almost a necessity for both [spouses] to work."

Similar worries are common in industrial centers throughout the Midwest. The economy isn't the only issue, or even the main issue but every bit of pessimism weighs against Republicans. "It's a sour mood that is driven in part by Iraq, that's driven in part by economic anxiety," says Robert Schmuhl, a political analyst at Notre Dame.

In Ohio, these concerns are helping Democrat Sherrod Brown in his challenge to Sen. Mike DeWine (R). In Michigan, Republican Dick DeVos has tried to use it in his bid to unseat Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), but still trails in polls.

In this election, the economy provides fodder for both parties. The GOP record on tax cuts appeals to many here. "I'm a big anti-liberal.... I vote Chocola," says Travis Hessey, who runs his own plumbing business in town.

He says times are pretty tight. His gasoline bill has soared even as local customers can't afford to pay big fees. But to him, the best way to keep the economy going is to keep taxes low and for US workers to keep boosting their skills. "I don't look for ways that the government can help," he says.

Nationwide, many Republican candidates hope to reap some tailwind from a good job market, low taxes, and a recent dip in gasoline prices. But a housing slowdown and rising personal debt weigh against those positives.

"It's hard for voters to make sense of the economy," says Elizabeth Bennion, a political scientist at Indiana University's branch campus here.

Only 35 percent of Americans rate the current economy as "excellent" or "good," according to the Pew survey, and just 25 percent of Midwesterners feel that way.

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