Congressman Brad Ellsworth, the bluest of the Blue Dog Democrats, has announced his candidacy for the Indiana Senate seat that Senator Evan Bayh is exiting.
Ellsworth calls himself a "fiscally-conservative Democrat." But that’s something of a misnomer. He is a conservative Democrat who stands top the right not just of his fellow partisans but of many conservative Republicans on a wide range of social and economic issues.
Ellsworth is ardently opposed to abortion rights — so much so that he took the lead in drafting an initial anti-choice amendment to the House health-care reform. Ellsworth later backed the amendment proposed by Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, which placed tight restrictions on funding for elective abortions.
Ellsworth stands to the right of many conservative Republicans on the issue of funding of embryonic stem-cell research.
To get a sense of just how extreme Ellsworth is when it comes to debates about both reproductive rights and science, consider this: Senator Orrin Harch, R-Utah, though he is virulently anti-choice has championed ethical embryonic stem cell research.
During the debate about embryonic stem-cell legislation, Hatch told his colleagues: "As a science, embryonic stem cell research today is where the space program was when we first dreamed of it. When I think of embryonic stem cell research, I imagine diabetics without insulin pumps. I dream of patients with Parkinson’s Disease who sprint rather than shuffle. I conceive of patients with spinal cord injury who stand up and walk again."
The senator was, of course, correct.
Hatch’s responsible view was shared by many conservative Republicans.
It was also shared by many Indiana voters. Indeed, in 2008, they voted for a Democratic candidate for president who argued that it was time again to show respect for science.
Barack Obama supported embryonic stem-cell research and won Indiana.
Evan Bayh supported embryonic stem-cell research and won Indiana.
When the Senate weighed the issue, Obama and Bayh and Hatch (along with nine other Senate Republicans) took the side of science.
When the House considered the issue, Brad Ellsworth rejected science to vote as a lock-step social conservative.
His more-conservative-than-the-conservatives positions on choice and science are not outlier stances.
Nothing in Ellsworth’s record suggests that he is one of the small group of House Democrats who are strongly anti-choice but otherwise progressive. (Former House Majority Whip David Bonior, D-Michigan, was an abortion foe but a steady backer of economic and social justice causes — maintaining what is often referred to as the Catholic "seamless garment" of "consistent life"stance outlined by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.)
In fact, Ellsworth votes with the right on a host of issues. For instance, he joined the vast majority of Republicans in the House to vote against legislation to address climate change, against enforcing limits on CO2 global warming pollution and against environmental education grants.
But where Ellsworth really falls in with the Republicans is on economic issues. He’s a big champion of a federal spending freeze — on domestic programs that help American families, mind you, not of payouts to defense contractors and big corporations.
Ellsworth opposed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 not because he thought the bill did too little to create jobs — which would have been a legitimate criticism from a representative of state that is experiencing double-digit unemployment — but because he shared the Republican view that the bill tried to do too much.
The congressman even opposed an early version of the bill to extend the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to cover more families. (In fairness, he did vote for a later, watered-down version.)
Frequently, Ellsworth out-Republicans the Republicans when it comes to taking care of big business.
As an example, he voted against modifying bankruptcy rules to avoid mortgage foreclosures.
He also supported the misguided auto-industry bailout that put the federal government in the position of funding corporate moves to close auto plants and car dealerships in Indiana — a state that has been battered by both the recession and deindustrialization.
Perhaps worst of all, Ellsworth campaigned for Congress as an opponent of the "free-trade" agenda that has cost Indiana hundreds of thousands of jobs. Yet, when he got to Congress, he broke with fair-trade Democrats (and a number of Republicans) to support the Bush administration’s demand for a new free-trade agreement with Peru.
The bottom line: Brad Ellsworth is right when he says he is a conservative. In fact, he’s far right.
But does anyone really think that a candidate of the party of Barack Obama is going to lure Tea Party enthusiasts and angry independent voters to the Democratic line with an "I-like-tea-too" message? It’s not going to happen.
Worse yet, Ellsworth’s social conservatism and economic elitism is a toxic combination that has the potential to depress turnout among base Democrats, progressives and populist independents.
So what will Indiana Democrats get with Brad Ellsworth: An "I’m-more-conservative-than-you-are" election debate that culminates in maximized Republican turnout and depressed Democratic turnout.
There’s much speculation that the fix is in for Ellsworth and that he will be chosen by Indiana Democratic Party leaders to replace Bayh.
But if those leaders really want to win this vulnerable seat in this volatile year, they can and should take a reality check.
Ellsworth is an enthusiasm killer. His several-year-old Facebook page has attracted 2,196 fans.
In contrast, the brand-new Draft John Mellencamp for Senate Facebook page has already attracted close to 5,000 fans and the number is rising by the hour.
Of course, politics isn’t just about Facebook — although anyone who wants to get the Obama voters of 2008 back to the polls knows that it is at least somewhat about Facebook.
The other measures with regard to Mellencamp are strong. A campaign to urge Democratic leaders to consider Mellencamp, a Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer who has deep roots in Indiana and a track record of activism on behalf of hard-hit farmers and displaced workers, has already generated thousands of emails.
And Brent Budowsky, a longtime aide to former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh (Evan’s father), is cheering on the Mellencamp move.
"To those working to draft Mellencamp: You are fighting a good and worthy battle and I hope you succeed. America needs champions of justice and fairness and high principle in the Senate. John Mellencamp is exactly the kind of leader and voice our people need to lift the standards of our politics and the spirit of our nation," says Budowsky.
The veteran Democratic aide argues that: "Indiana has many fine Democrats who would make good Senate candidates, but John Mellencamp is unique, one of a kind, a voice for the people who believes America needs a new brand of politics and new kind of leadership in the Senate. I believe John Mellencamp would electrify the campaign and electrify Democrats who want a fighter for working people, farmers, small businesses and small-town America to have a loud and clear voice in the Senate."
Democrats will not win Indiana — or any other states — by coloring within the lines drawn by conservative Republicans.
This is going to be an angry, wild and unexpected political year.
Democrats won’t win tough races by running as the managers of the status quo or as conservatives. They will win as populists who can excite base voters and attract independents who backed Obama because they wanted change and have not gotten nearly enough of what they voted for.
Mellencamp, with his track record as an organizer of Farm Aid, as a crusader for economic and racial justice, as a campaigner for populist Democrats and as a rocker who retains genuine credibility with working-class voters in Indiana, could be that populist.
As such, he could well be the best, perhaps even the only, hope Indiana Democrats have for retaining a very vulnerable Senate seat.