Editor's Note: In the final 100 days before Election Day, CNN has been profiling one race at random each day from among the nation's top 100 House races, which we've dubbed "The CNN 100." Read the full list here. Today's featured district is:
Indiana 9th – Rep. Baron Hill (D) is seeking a sixth term (third consecutive)
Primary: May 4, 2010
Location: Southeastern Indiana, stretching from Bloomington to the Kentucky border
Days until Election Day: 50
Democratic Rep. Baron Hill may finally be rid of a perennial political rival, but the always-difficult task of keeping his seat in Indiana's conservative-leaning 9th Congressional District appears to have gotten tougher.
Hill will face Republican lawyer Todd Young instead of longtime tormenter, ex-Rep. Mike Sodrel. Hill's more significant opponent, though, might be the national political climate, with the national GOP hoping it can fire up enough conservatives about his health care vote and other matters to beat him for the second time in six years.
Hill's balancing of his party and his generally more conservative constituents has been tricky. Elected in 1998 with 51 percent of the vote, the former businessman and state representative from Seymour became a member of the "Blue Dog Coalition," a group of fiscally conservative Democrats. Representing a district that would vote for President Bush in both 2000 and 2004 and John McCain in 2008, he opposed the position of the majority of his party on key votes between 17 percent and 28 percent of the time in his years in office, according to Congressional Quarterly.
He'd usually squeak past opponents on Election Day. He won 54 percent of the vote in 2000 before starting his epic battle with millionaire businessman Sodrel, beating him with 51 percent in 2002 but falling to him in 2004 by 1,425 votes. Hill retook the seat from Sodrel in 2006 as Democrats took the House, and fended him off again in 2008 with his most comfortable margin yet – 20 percentage points – as Barack Obama took the White House.
Hill, 57, has called for new and increased spending to be offset. Republicans are targeting him for supporting last year's stimulus package and for voting for health care reform. The Republican National Committee is spending more than $22 million on ads targeting Hill and 40 other House Democrats it thinks is vulnerable.
Enter Young, a 38-year-old attorney, U.S. Naval Academy graduate, former Marine officer and former legislative assistant to Sen. Richard Lugar. The Bloomington resident beat Sodrel in the Republican primary, overcoming Sodrel's charges that the central Indiana native is a late-comer to southern Indiana. Young is now taking aim at Hill, recently running ads charging him with voting to "let government take over our health care" and failing to stop "the runaway spending."
Hill's ads have questioned whether Young will protect Social Security.
Two non-partisan handicappers, The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report, rate the race as a toss-up. Leslie Lenkowsky, professor at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said it's too early to know which candidate's strategy will succeed.
"Young's strategy is to show Hill as moving in lockstep with the president and the Democratic leadership, and say, 'Is this guy representing you or the Democratic leadership?'" Lenkowsky said.
"What Hill is trying to do is position Young further to the right. . . . If you're too far to the right, you're going to come out of [liberal] Monroe County far behind," he said.
South-central Indiana's Monroe County has the district's most populous city, Bloomington, home of Indiana University. From there, the district goes south to more conservative and rural areas, Lenkowsky said, covering cities just north of Louisville, Kentucky, including New Albany and Jeffersonville.
Greg Knott, a Libertarian, also is in the race.
The last time a Republican wave hit the country, Hill lost. But he's always out-polled Democratic presidential candidates in the district, meaning some of his right-leaning constituents may think he's aligned close enough to them. Whether he survives the 2010 race might depend on how many keep thinking that.