Standing in a picturesque courthouse square in Crown Point, Ind., Faye Kelley says she thinks locals are “very discouraged” because of high inflation.
She’s also not happy with Democratic-run Washington’s spending programs that she describes as “giving money to people to stay at home and not go to work.”
“They’re making people lazy,” says Kelley, a Crown Point retiree who worked at a manufacturing company in nearby Whiting, voicing a criticism that’s often leveled by conservatives at initiatives such as the extra unemployment benefits paid out through September 2021.
For these types of reasons, she says both she and her husband, who is retired from the local steel industry, plan to vote for the Republican candidate in the race to represent Indiana’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, not incumbent Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan.
There’s a real chance that a majority of the district’s voters could join the couple in backing GOP challenger Jennifer-Ruth Green. That would be a huge political change for northwest Indiana, which historically has been a Democratic stronghold, like neighboring Chicago. While Indiana is a generally red state, a Republican last won this House seat in the 1928 election, when Calvin Coolidge was president.
“It would be a big deal, if she manages to flip that to red,” said one expert on Indiana politics, Andy Downs, former director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne.
“Within the broader context, that would probably be an indicator that the Republicans had a really good night,” Downs added, referring to the GOP’s overall effort to flip one or both congressional chambers in November’s midterm elections.
Downs said he thinks the northwest Indiana district — known for industrial sites such as U.S. Steel’s
Gary plant — is still likely to go to the Democrats, saying, “It is Mrvan’s race to lose,” but he emphasized that Green looks set to have significant financial support for her campaign, including from outside the state.
Analysts at both the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics last month switched their ratings for the contest to “toss-up” from leaning Democratic, citing factors such as Green’s fundraising advantage in the most recent quarterly reporting period. She raked in about $566,000 in the year’s second quarter, while Mrvan, a freshman congressman, brought in about $357,000 in the quarter.
The GOP is widely expected to win enough races in the midterms to take control of the House, as inflation serves as a talking point for the party to use against President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats. That would fit the historical pattern in which a first-term president’s party tends to lose congressional ground in the midterms. Republican control of the U.S. Senate looks much less likely, with betting markets currently seeing Democrats keeping their edge in that chamber of Congress.
As Democrats in northwest Indiana work to keep Mrvan’s House seat from becoming one that flips, some party activists say they’re expecting a lift from the public response to Supreme Court decision in June that overturned Roe v. Wade. After that ruling, Indiana’s Republican-run government in early August approved an abortion ban that included limited exceptions.
Laura Madigan, a Democrat who serves as a council member in the town of Porter, said she’s seeing locals who are “furious” over the new abortion restrictions, and they sound energized when she knocks on their doors while she’s canvassing.
“They’re answering the door and fired up and talking about showing up to vote,” said Madigan, who is also a founding member of a local group called the Duneland Democratic Committee, as well as a massage therapist and mom with school-age kids. “They know the only thing they have left is their vote, and I think that they’re going to show up in bigger numbers than previously. I really do.”
Madigan said she’s backing Mrvan because of his support for abortion rights and northwest Indiana’s labor unions, along with his respect for “the democratic process,” while many Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, have coalesced around unsubstantiated claims about 2020’s elections being stolen.
“I really do feel like democracy itself is on the ballot this midterm,” Madigan said.
Other Democrats in the district voiced similar views.
“Over the last couple of years, I have come to see Donald Trump as the worst thing that’s ever happened to this country since 9/11,” said Jim Sweeney, a Schererville retiree who worked for an oil pipeline company. Sweeney said he thinks Green’s positions appear “largely, without referring to Trump, directly related to Trump policies, so I’ll be working as hard against her as I can.”
He also said he’s generally a reliable Democratic voter because of a family background in unions, steel and railroads, as well as his interest in environmental issues, adding that his former employer in the energy industry “was actually a pretty good corporation when it comes to environmental regulation.”
In addition, Sweeney said he hopes local voters look “rationally” at recent high prices for gasoline
and other essentials, meaning that they see that inflation is a problem worldwide and its drivers include Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing economic rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. Steel’s plant in Gary, Ind., juts out of the landscape in this undated photo, with a Lake Michigan beach in the foreground.
What the two campaigns are saying
Green said in an interview that she thinks her House race is competitive for the first time in decades in part due to Republican-leaning Illinois residents moving into the district over the years.
“We get a lot of people from Illinois who are fed up with the economic mismanagement and the high taxes, and … people have philosophical differences as well,” the Republican candidate said.
Another factor is inflation is “hitting us incredibly hard,” she said. “Our recent sample polling has showed that the economy is the No. 1 issue — unequivocally unmatched, unparalleled by any other issue — and so I hear about gas and groceries every day.”
Read MarketWatch’s inflation coverage.
Green — who is Black, was deployed to Iraq while in the Air Force, and currently directs a local nonprofit — said that “as a woman, as a minority, as a combat veteran, I think there are many avenues that allow me to connect with people.”
Regarding Trump, she said his policies were “very impactful for our country,” and the U.S. two years ago was “better off economically.”
“As far as his personality goes. I don’t want to lead like him,” she told MarketWatch. Green also said she disagrees with Trump’s claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
Mrvan’s campaign responded to questions via email, saying the congressman “has worked to reduce prices at the gas pump and at the grocery store, and create more good-paying jobs for everyone.”
“He has consistently delivered federal resources to improve the South Shore Rail Line, the Gary/Chicago International Airport, the Michigan City Harbor, as well as support local law-enforcement agencies, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher education,” wrote the Democratic incumbent’s campaign manager, Matt Calderon. “It is obvious that the Republican nominee, funded by national and state conservative organizations, would oppose these bipartisan solutions.”
Calderon sounded upbeat on Mrvan’s prospects, saying: “We continue to have every confidence that Northwest Indiana voters will voice their support for women’s rights and the economic deliverables Frank supported.”
A historic courthouse building stands at the center of a picturesque square in Crown Point, Ind., that’s ringed by restaurants and shops.
Where have you gone, Pete Visclosky?
If Mrvan’s predecessor, former Democratic Rep. Pete Visclosky, were still in office, northwest Indiana’s House contest probably wouldn’t be viewed as competitive this year, according to Micah Pollak, an economics professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary.
Visclosky spent 36 years in the U.S. House, serving from January 1985 until his retirement in January 2021, and he had a seat on the chamber’s powerful Appropriations Committee. One of his accomplishments near the end of his time in office was helping to get an official national park designation in 2019 for a scenic stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline in his district, so there’s now an Indiana Dunes National Park.
“Mrvan is a strong candidate, but he doesn’t have the legacy that Visclosky did, in terms of making sure that projects got here, funding was here,” the economist said.
Pollak also said the first district’s House contest reflects in some ways the shifts that northwest Indiana is experiencing, whether it’s new construction or people moving in from Illinois portions of the Chicago area. The Mrvan-Green race is between a traditional candidate with a connection to steelworkers and a new candidate who wants to make changes, he said.
Steel remains key to the First Congressional District’s economy, but other manufacturing industries also are important, and healthcare and other service industries have grown considerably, according to Pollak.
Cities in some parts of Lake County such as Hammond, East Chicago and Gary have seen declines in employment and population, he said, but there has been growth around Crown Point, as well as in Porter County and La Porte County (whose western portions are in the congressional district).
Northwest Indiana, also called the Region, has the Hoosier State’s second largest economy, behind only Indianapolis, but it often doesn’t get the attention that it deserves in the state capital or in other parts of the state since “we’re so far away and we’re so close to Chicago,” Pollak said.
“Inflation and other economic topics are in the front of people’s minds, but that’s always there, kind of in the background,” the IU Northwest professor said. “It’s always kind of northwest Indiana — us versus them, whether you’re talking about vs. Chicago or the rest of Indiana.”