Taking Back the House: The Passion of The Kook

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DISTRICT: Indiana's 8th (Terre Haute)

INCUMBENT: Rep. John Hostettler (R, six terms)

CHALLENGER: Sheriff Brad Ellsworth (D)

TOP ISSUE: Immigration

The district is known as the "Bloody Eighth" for its epic congressional contests — and this year's race looks to be no exception. Hostettler, the incumbent, is a firebreathing soldier of the religious right who has managed to stay in office by running shoestring campaigns that rely on a tightknit network of grass-roots supporters. He refers to his office as his "ministry" and once took to the House floor to demonize Democrats for what he called their "long war on Christianity."

Hostettler has a lonely history of extremism: He was one of only eleven representatives to vote against the aid package for Katrina victims, and one of only three to oppose the Violence Against Women Act. And at town-hall meetings he holds, he shows a PowerPoint presentation that depicts the invasion of America by illegal Mexican immigrants.

But if Hostettler is a true reactionary, Ellsworth is an old-fashioned conservative. He's pro-life and pro-gun, a genial sheriff who talks tough on crime, opposes gay marriage and supports making illegal immigration a felony. "The joke here locally," he says, "is that it's hard to tell a Republican from a Democrat." Indeed, Ellsworth joined the party only because it was Democrats on the county commission who fought to provide his department with bulletproof vests when he was a young deputy.

In other words, Ellsworth is a great fit for this conservative district, which went heavily for Bush in 2004. Almost alone among Democratic challengers, he has managed to out-fund-raise his incumbent opponent by more than three to one. But since June, the NRCC has been making up the deficit by airing attack ads reminiscent of the infamous Willie Horton spots that helped install Bush's father in the White House. The ads purport to profile criminals whom Ellsworth's office allegedly turned loose — even though the murderer in the most prominent spot was actually out on a judge-ordered work-release program.

To date, the spots haven't moved the poll numbers: Ellsworth has surged to a healthy lead. And with the seats of fellow incumbents Chris Chocola and Mike Sodrel also up for grabs, the Republicans may find their resources stretched thin in Indiana. Says Rothenberg, "I don't think the NRCC is going to rescue John Hostettler this time."

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