Bloomington, Indiana

Hoosiers have a tendency to brag. Anthropologists suggest that this is probably an overcompensation mechanism for a deep-seated inferiority complex that will compel a resident of Bartholomew County, let’s say, to corner strangers at a party and insist that his county’s dinner theater troupe is at least the second best and maybe the very best dinner theater troupe in the entire Central Southeastern Indiana region. But there was a ring of truth to the grand boast that Todd Young, a fifth generation Hoosier, made one drizzly night last week, in remarks to a loft party near the campus of Indiana University.

Pundits are calling Indiana’s 9th Congressional District a “bellwether,” Young said. A big win there, early on Election Night, could inspire west coast Republicans to swarm the polls, transforming otherwise close races into GOP victories and wresting the country from the Democratic death grip.

“Truly the eyes of the country are on the 9th Congressional District,” said Young, who also happens to be the Republican candidate in the 9th Congressional District. “Everybody’s watching us right here.”

Young took a beat and dropped his arms to his side. “As if there weren’t enough pressure on me already!”

Young, an ex-Marine captain with an MBA from the University of Chicago, is holding up pretty well, but it’s a fine line he walks. The 9th stretches from the liberal Democratic stronghold of Bloomington in its northwest corner to the culturally conservative, though still heavily Democratic, strongholds along the Ohio River, from Louisville to Cincinnati. It’s a textbook swing district, ideologically ambidextrous.

In the last three presidential elections it has voted for the Republican candidate—overwhelmingly for George W. Bush, barely for John McCain—while usually retaining a “conservative” Democrat named Baron Hill as its congressman. Hill’s feel for his district’s peculiarities has been keen, and his career in the 9th reflects the waxing and waning enthusiasms of national voters, too. He was first elected as a Clinton centrist in 1998. In 2004, the Bush tide swept Hill out of office. After two years, during which voters turned against Republicans, he ran again and won easily. Two years after that, he won by a landslide.

Hill is a leader among the “Blue Dog” caucus of House Democrats, but he was one of the first congressmen to recognize the appeal of Barack Obama and the first in Indiana to endorse him for president, even as the state’s moderate Democratic establishment, led by professional moderate Evan Bayh, was queuing up to walk the Hillary gangplank. Baron Hill bet right. Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Indiana since Lyndon Johnson.

And now, two years later, voters in the 9th as elsewhere have turned again, away from Obama and, by implication, away from Baron Hill. From a district assumed to be “leaning Democratic,” the 9th has more recently been rated by most analysts as a tossup, with others giving Young an edge. Everybody agrees that Baron Hill is in trouble.

The Obama tenure has badly damaged Hill’s image as an independent. Fiercely declaring his fiscal conservatism, he voted against TARP while President Bush was still in office. Since then, he has voted for all of Obama’s signature initiatives, no matter how fiscally reckless, from the cap and trade global warming bill to the health care reform to the stimulus.

In Indiana’s 2nd District to the north, Hill’s Blue Dog colleague Joe Donnelly has distanced himself from Obama and repudiated Nancy Pelosi—the “Washington crowd,” Donnelly calls them in advertisements—despite a voting record nearly identical to Hill’s. (Donnelly voted for TARP.) Hill by contrast has embraced his freshly discovered liberalism. At a debate with Young in downtown Bloomington last week, he lined up his controversial votes and declared himself delighted with each one.

“The bill that I voted for was not a government takeover of health care—it was insurance reform. I’m proud to stand before you and say I voted for it,” Hill said. Cap and trade? “This is God’s green earth,” he said. “We have to protect it.” The stimulus, cash-for-clunkers, the auto bailouts: “That’s what we did,” he said. “Think how many jobs would have been lost.  .  .  .So the choice in this election is, do we want to continue the policies that stopped this crisis in its tracks, or go back to the old ways?”

It’s an unexpected strategy, poorly suited, you’d think, to a moment when the old ways are looking better and better to an increasing number of voters. But it has the admirable effect of clarifying the choice the voters face. Young for his part has run an essentially negative campaign, his greatest asset being that he would never repeat the votes that Hill embraces and his constituents apparently deplore.

Young has also made an issue of his opponent’s irascible temperament. Hill is perhaps best known nationally for calling Tea Party activists “political terrorists.” Square-jawed, straight-backed, the congressman has the unpleasant demeanor of a man who might scream “What am I, a map?” if you dared to ask him directions. Young’s most popular TV ad shows Hill berating a questioner at a public forum last year. “This is my town hall meeting and I set the rules,” Hill growls. As the crowd hoots he continues: “Let me repeat that one more time: This is my town hall meeting for you, and you’re not going to tell me how to run my congressional office.” The ad makes Hill’s personal arrogance a symbol of the larger arrogance of the Washington political class.

Beyond that, Young takes refuge in some ideological ambiguity of his own. Though steeped in the conservative movement—he was a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a longtime reader of National Review, and an officer of his law school’s Federalist Society, and (most important) his wife’s uncle is Dan Quayle—he has been understandably dodgy on specific issues like Social Security: “This is a fifty-fifty district,” he says.

Like many other Republicans this year, he attacks Hill’s vote for Obama-care on the grounds that the bill “cuts $500 billion from our seniors’ Medicare.” During a heated primary campaign that he eventually won by only 2 percentage points, Young made a play for Tea Party support by giving affirmative answers to a loaded questionnaire from a “constitutionalist” group called the Independence Caucus. It revealed a 90 proof conservatism that most voters aren’t ready to swallow, especially in the fifty-fifty 9th.

“Yes or no,” reads one question. “Do you commit to oppose the expansion and/or the perpetuation of any and all EXISTING federal legislation and regulations in areas that are not constitutionally enumerated  …  Education, Energy, Welfare, Labor issues, Non-Interstate roads, farm subsidies, etc.”

“Do you commit,” reads another, “to support legislation requiring the Federal Government to transfer ownership of all Federal Lands back to the individual states that they are located within?”

Unfairly but hilariously, Hill insists that this last question means Young wants to “eliminate Mount Rushmore.” The other question, he says, suggests Young wants to dismantle the Department of Education—a more plausible accusation, since that pledge was a GOP party plank throughout the 1980s and 1990s and an often-expressed hope of Ronald Reagan, now canonized.

Young denies it all. “No,” he says with exasperation, “I’m not in favor of eliminating national parks.” And though the questionnaire seems clearly to advocate eliminating the Education Department, along with most other agencies of the federal government, Young says only: “That’s not how I interpret it.”

In the recent past Young has also publicly toyed with partial privatization of Social Security and with the Fair Tax, which would replace the income tax with a 23 percent value added tax. During the campaign he has disowned the second idea and fudges the first, insisting that any specific reforms to Social Security—indeed, any specific steps to cut the deficit and bring down the debt—will have to wait for the report of President Obama’s blue ribbon deficit commission.

Young defends his squeamishness. “People want to know the principles that will guide you,” he said. “And I’ve made those clear: limited government, individual freedom, and responsibility. Ideally you want a campaign in which both candidates can talk in detail about challenges and solutions. But we’re running against a candidate who will distort and demagogue any issue to stay in power.”

However wise Young’s reticence might be, it makes the meaning of any victory less apparent. What’s it mean when the Democrat thinks it’s good politics to boast of his unpopular votes and the Republican thinks it’s good politics to slam the Democrat for cutting spending? The eyes of the country may turn to the 9th on Election Night, as Young says, but it’s not clear who will be doing the bragging—or what the boast will be.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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