SOUTH BEND, IND. -- When Congressman Mark Souder took the microphone at a tea-party gathering of the Elkhart County Patriots last month, I thought to myself that he must be feeling pressure from his deep-pockets challenger, Bob Thomas, who was commanding the area's airwaves with commercial after commercial criticizing Souder as "a career politician." Disheveled and about the furthest from anything resembling dapper or dashing, there was an urgency in Souder's voice as he praised "the premises of our country" and noted that it was necessary "to put the fire back in the Republican Party." Just after he denounced abortion, he asserted in unequivocal terms: "You have to have a moral people."
Today that line -- and Souder's entire career as a defender of conservative social values -- prompt head-shaking disbelief here in his home state after Tuesday's announcement that he's had an affair with a woman on his staff and is resigning his House seat, effective Friday. Though he prevailed in the primary two weeks ago, voters in the Third District of Indiana are trying to make sense of his sudden departure.
Novelists can explain darkened hearts with greater ability than political analysts-fiction offering possibilities reality rarely affords. In Souder's case, though, his straight-arrow consistency in espousing personal ethics and conduct makes his confession all the more stunning.
A self-described evangelical Christian and MBA graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Souder even taped videos about sexual abstinence and the evils of abortion with the woman implicated in the liaison. If a novelist can't do justice to these circumstances, Jon Stewart or "Saturday Night Live" probably can (click play below to watch one of the videos).
Within a few hours of the eight-term legislator's resignation statement, there were plans being discussed for a special election, which Gov. Mitch Daniels has the authority to call. Daniels, a possible GOP candidate for president in 2012 and a politician sensitive to every electoral breeze in his state, has the discretion to set the actual date for voting.
According to Indiana election law, caucuses of precinct committee officials within the district will select the Republican and Democratic candidates to compete in the special election. Though it's fairly certain Tom Hayhurst, a doctor and former Fort Wayne council member, will be the Democrats' choice-Hayhurst waged a strong campaign against Souder in 2006-the Republican slot could see stiff competition among two of Souder's 2010 primary challengers: Thomas, a wealthy car dealer, and Phil Troyer, a lawyer. But State Sen. Marlin Stutzman, who finished a better-than-expected second to former U.S. Sen. Dan Coats in the recent primary for the Senate nomination, is already receiving attention on the merits of the tea-party friendly campaign he waged against Coats.
Whether Souder's revelation becomes a major factor in deciding who will represent Indiana's Third District is an open question, but it promises to be more competitive, given what's occurred and Hayhurst's previous experience.
It's possible, too, that Souder's resignation will become an issue, spoken or unspoken, in the fall's Senate contest between Coats and Democratic Congressman Brad Ellsworth. Souder, you see, began his political career in 1981 as a staff member for Coats, then a U.S. Representative, and he stayed with Coats after his election to the Senate, rising to the post of deputy chief of staff before returning to Indiana to run for Congress on his own in 1994.
Democrats currently hold a 5-4 advantage over Republicans in the House, but with Souder's fall there will now be three districts without incumbents running: the Third, the Eighth (because of Ellsworth's decision to take on Coats) and the Fourth, where Steve Buyer declined to seek re-election. Evan Bayh's decision not to seek a third Senate term adds even more to the open and unpredictable nature of Indiana politics, and the anti-incumbent mood is working in especially strange ways in the Hoosier state this election year.
Robert Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair of American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.
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