It was the one thing state Democrats had hoped to avoid in their quest to unseat Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels — a costly, contested primary.
What they got was a tight race between Indianapolis architect Jim Schellinger and former U.S. Rep. Jill Long Thompson that has included jabs at each other, cost them plenty and could leave the winner woefully short on cash at the start of the general election campaign.
“Going into this race, many people saw Mitch Daniels as being vulnerable for some of the things he did during his first term,” said Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. “Now, the way the two Democrats are going at each other in the primary, it’s possible that he will be a stronger candidate after May 6.”
Daniels is already revved up even though he doesn’t have a primary opponent. He has outraised and outspent the two Democrats, and as of March 31 had $5.3 million cash on hand — four times that of Schellinger and Long Thompson combined. He is already running campaign ads that are vying for air time with those supporting Schellinger and Long Thompson.
State Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker acknowledges that it wasn’t supposed to work out this way. He spent 2006 trying to recruit better-known Democrats to run, such as then-Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson or former Gov. Joe Kernan. Neither took the bait.
Many big-name Democrats got behind Schellinger — in part because of his personality, business credentials as president of CSO Architects in Indianapolis, and fundraising experience. He has given roughly $285,000 to state Democratic candidates and the party over the past decade, according to his campaign.
The South Bend native has never run for public office but believes that’s a plus because he’s a fresh face. The state party has officially taken a neutral stance, but Schellinger was endorsed early by Peterson, the late U.S. Rep. Julia Carson and former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg. He also has the backing of former Indiana first lady Judy O’Bannon and Kernan.
Long Thompson entered the race in July 2007 – about four months after Schellinger. Both have touted humble beginnings — him growing up as the sixth of eight children who worked nights to help put himself through the University of Notre Dame; her being raised on an Indiana farm and the first in her family to graduate from college.
She says her tenure in public service sets her apart. She ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1986 and lost a 1988 bid against Dan Coats in what was then the state’s 4th Congressional District in northeastern Indiana. But she won a special election for the seat in 1989 after Coats was appointed to the U.S. Senate when Dan Quayle became vice president.
She lost the seat to Mark Souder during the GOP landslide of 1994.
Schellinger was thought to be the early favorite, and he began airing TV ads in mid-March, two weeks before Long Thompson. But a statewide poll of 400 likely Democratic primary voters released last week showed 48 percent supporting Long Thompson, and 42 percent favoring Schellinger. A poll taken in early April showed the two running about even.
Both polls were commissioned by WSBT-TV in South Bend, the South Bend Tribune, WISH-TV in Indianapolis and WANE-TV in Fort Wayne and have a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Political observers say Long Thompson has been helped by her name recognition and shake-ups in the Schellinger campaign. Among other things, he is on his second campaign manager and second communications director.
“People know her and they like her, and I think that gives her
a tremendous leg up,” said former Bloomington Mayor John
Schellinger and Long Thompson have each criticized Daniels for leasing the Indiana Toll Road and other privatization efforts and ending collective bargaining rights for state employees.
Long Thompson says many people are worried about Daniels’ “ideological obsession with privatizing and leasing off state resources and assets.”
“I think we have to have leadership in this state that understands the importance of providing good services and recognizing that outsourcing often leads to money up front but costs us dearly down the road,” she said.
Schellinger says Daniels dictates from the top down.
“This governor doesn’t listen to people,”Schellinger says in a video on his Web site. “He thinks all big decisions should be made by one person in a small room, and that’s not the way we work in Indiana.”
Long Thompson proposes steering more tax incentives to businesses that locate in economically depressed counties and wants to revamp the state’s tax structure to attract businesses. Schellinger has stressed work force training, advancing small business and providing grants for developing new environmental technologies.
Both say they would help small businesses provide health insurance for their workers.
On education, Schellinger has pledged to never cut overall spending for public schools and try to attract and retain more qualified teachers. Long Thompson says she will focus on bolstering vocational training, improving access to college and trying to give teachers more flexibility.
Long Thompson has also proposed capping the state sales tax on gasoline at anything above a pump price of $2.75 per gallon. During their only formal debate on April 15, Schellinger said a more comprehensive approach to gasoline prices was needed at the state and federal level.
“We have to make responsible decisions and not knee-jerk decisions in an election year to try to win voters over,” he said.