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Andre Carson

There were two elections in the past week, one in Illinois and one in Indiana. What should we have learned from these early 2008 ballot tests.

In Illinois’ 14th Congressional District – held for more than two decades by former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert – a Democrat named Bill Foster won. What is intriguing about this is that it is a reliably Republican district where the Republican underperformed the party’s base by 7 percent. President George W. Bush carried it by double digit margins in 2000 and 2004. For it to fall into the hands of the Democrats is one sign that 2008 could be a Democratic year. An analysis by Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post found that if this trend continues, an additional 51 Republican House seats thought to be safe could come into play.

In Indiana’s 7th CD, U.S. Rep. Julia Carson passed away last December. That set the stage for the continuation of what has become another Democratic family dynasty. There are, of course, the Bayhs and the O’Bannons. Now there is U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, the grandson, who won the special election by a 54-43 percent margin over State Rep. Jon Elrod.

The old Carson machine began falling in behind Andre last fall when his grandmother took sick leave from Congress. With former congressman Andy Jacobs Jr. denying that she faced a life-threatening illness, the "I Love Julia" signs began springing up on Center Township thoroughfares. After Rep. Carson's terminal lung cancer was publicly acknowledged last Thanksgiving, it was Jacobs who floated the notion of the family dynasty. Even before Julia Carson's 2008 re-election was officially scrapped, it was Jacobs who said if his "sister" couldn't run, then he would be for the grandson.

Carson was the beneficiary of a successful coordinated campaign with massive help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He had a 5-to-1 money advantage over Elrod. The campaign began airing ads two weeks before a Howey-Gauge Poll on Feb. 17-18 revealed he had a 54-36 percent lead. Elrod was able to shave 7 percent off that margin by a last minute direct mail and a TV ad campaign. The political organization of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar tried to stoke GOP absentees and ran an extensive phone bank.

Going into Tuesday's special, there was speculation as to whether Carson would reactivate his grandmother's machine. He won with 45,598 to 36,322 for Elrod. A couple of weeks ago, the idea of Elrod getting over 35,000 votes would have had the Republicans predicting victory.

But this result offered up different signals as to a national dynamic. Carson won with 54 percent, which was actually 4 percent lower than the 58 percent that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry carried the district in 2004. The Kerry campaign didn’t spend a dime in the 7th CD; Carson spent over a quarter million dollars. State Rep. David Orentlicher, one of several Democrats who will now challenge Rep. Andre Carson in the May 6 primary, says that he “underperformed.”

One thing Carson talked about a great deal, though not in much detail, is the need for the U.S. to pull out of the Iraq War. But The Politico reported that late February polling conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 53 percent of Americans — a slim majority — now believe “the U.S. will ultimately succeed in achieving its goals” in Iraq, up from 42 percent last September. So perceptions of the war are in flux.

Carson becomes the second Muslim to be elected to Congress in U.S. history. Elrod and the Republicans never touched the issue, but there were several news stories and a YouTube video showing National of Islam Rev. Louis Farrakhan endorsing Carson along with several clips of Farrakhan talking about race in a controversial fashion.

The Carson election brings into the mainstream more minority officeholders, which has been relatively rare in modern Hoosier history. We’ve now had three African-American members of Congress (the Carsons and Katie Hall), four mayors (Gary’s Richard Hatcher, Thomas Barnes and now Rudy Clay and LaPorte’s Elmo Gonzalez), and three sheriffs (Marion County’s Frank Anderson, former Grant County Sheriff Oatess Archey – both African-Americans – and Lake County Sheriff Roy Dominguez).

When Rep. Orentlicher kicked off his challenge to Carson on Wednesday at the memorial site where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy broke the news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination 40 years ago, race – or lack thereof – was present. The three-term legislator noted how Dr. King had a legacy of "building bridges across racial and socio-economic lines" and promised to do the same. "Our national leaders talk instead of act and exploit divisions for political gain instead of solving the problems that confront us," Orentlicher said as Dr. King's nephew, Dr. Derek King of Martin University, looked on.

It will be fascinating to watch this dynamic in the coming weeks as the Democratic presidential campaign arrives in Indiana featuring Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Machine-style politics and family dynasties aside, perhaps we’ve reached a point in Indiana where the content of character means more than skin color.

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