My current congresswoman is so cemented in office that if I didn’t go looking for her, I wouldn’t know who she is. It’s not like she has to break a nail to keep her seat. It took a threat to her son’s elected office — mayor of Detroit — for me to even see what she looks like; she got up at a rally and had a screechy meltdown that was a high/low moment in the last city election.
My previous congressman was/is similarly cemented in office, thanks to the usual redistricting shenanigans. But he usually has an opponent, and in election years Mark Souder can be counted on to run his usual campaign. A large component is radio ads on right-wing talk stations, with some homey instrumental track and Souder, in his Porky Pig voice, talking about his hometown of Grabill. It’s a farm town in northern Allen County that long ago reached “ruburban” status in its relationship to Fort Wayne. Lots of Amish there, lots of antique stores. Souder’s family business was and is still called a “general store.”
Of course, Souder hasn’t lived in Grabill for decades. He moved away to Washington to be an aide to Sen. Dan Coats, and when he moved back to establish residency for a congressional run, chose to live in Aboite Township, a far less quaint but more affluent bedroom community on the other side of the county, with the singular advantage of having a college-prep curriculum at the local high school, suitable for the upwardly mobile children of a congressman. (It’s also closer to the airport, essential for a commuting dad.) Still, Souder relentlessly trumpets Grabill in his ads, and never mentions Aboite. The ads are the usual values-voter crapola, in the sense values that they talk values endlessly values about values. Values values values. And sometimes the Amish, and of course their fine rural values.
This year, though, Souder has an opponent who, in a different time and with a less shamelessly gerrymandered district, might make him break a sweat. Of course he will win handily, but he’s taking no chances. He started his campaign after the May primary the olde-timey way — by sliming his opponent at every opportunity.
The campaign has been relentlessly ugly, made even more so by the nature of Souder’s opponent. He’s Dr. Tom Hayhurst, a Fort Wayne city councilman and the sort of medical professional who makes Marcus Welby look like Dr. House. My friend Frank Byrne was a partner with Hayhurst when they both practiced pulmonology in town. I remember one day, when we’d had one of our every-six-weeks-or-so lunches, and were getting ready to go back to work. Frank was stalling, which was odd, because he not only liked his work, he always had too much of it. What gives, I asked.
“Oh, I have a get-acquainted visit with a new patient. She couldn’t get along with Hayhurst and asked for a new doc. How the hell am I going to make her happy when she can’t find anything to like about Dimples?” The point of the story being, it’s a rare patient who can’t get along with Dr. Hayhurst. And yes, he has dimples.
He also has deep roots in the community (born and raised in the district where he lives), a middle-class background, a record of military service (Souder, Iraq war hawk, was a conscientious objector) and a modest lifestyle. He and his wife successfully raised two brilliant daughters, one a doctor herself. Along with Dr. Byrne, he started a pulmonology clinic at the local free clinic, so that the poor people hacking up a lung on a frigid January night can see a specialist.
With a decade on city council, he’s not a Washington expert, but not a total greenhorn, either.
So what has Souder found to smear on this sterling character? He’s “rich,” for one, and because he’s retired from practicing medicine, that can only mean the doc is looking for some yuppie hobby in his twilight years and settled on Congress, the way a CEO might decide to take up mountain-climbing in his 40s, doncha know. The ads are pathetic, mean-spirited and desperate, and are revealing Souder for the pathetic, mean-spirited and desperate soul he is. Adding to the nastiness, the National Republican Congressional Committee recently parachuted in and did a “push poll” in the district. Push polling is the when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife campaign tactic beloved by Karl Rove; no one will release the wording of the latest one, but a Hayhurst campaign worker received a call, and said it asked “whether the person would be more or less likely to vote for Hayhurst if the person knew he supported abortion and amnesty for all illegal immigrants.”
But do they work? Is Souder going to win? Of course he is. A Soviet factory worker couldn’t have a more secure job.
However, if nothing else, it’s making for a more interesting race than usual. I was stunned to see my old boss come creaking out of retirement to write a guest column for both dailies, condemning Souder. While this was hardly the voice of the oracle, it stands in rather glaring contrast to the usual amen-corner newspaper endorsements Souder has collected over the last 12 years. The letters to the editor have been relentlessly anti-Souder. And, mirabile dictu, Hayhurst has raised more money.
I’m not getting my hopes up. But I am paying attention.
Update: Mitch Harper thinks the RNCC poll doesn’t qualify as a push poll, but sounds like more of a fishing expedition to gauge hot-button issues for a late campaign rush. A push poll question would be much nastier than the question above, he believes. How comforting.