The 1980 census presented Republicans then in control of the Indiana General Assembly with the challenge of redrawing congressional district lines to reflect a shifting and, in outlying parts of the state, shrinking population. Their attention soon focused on the suburban communities taking shape north of Indianapolis, where a growing and generally Republican-leaning population became the center of a new district offering an open seat in the U.S. House. The favored candidate to fill it in 1982 was Bruce Melchert, a former state Republican chairman, but he was upended in the Republican primary by Dan Burton, an outspokenly conservative state legislator who went on to a 30-year tenure in the House often marked by controversy.
In 2012, the scramble to succeed the retiring Burton as the Republican nominee was as fevered as that to fill the seat three decades before; the winner was former U.S. Attorney Susan Brooks, whose remarks as a member of Congress were more measured and her voting record more moderate than those of her predecessor. But her tenure was much shorter. Brooks announced in 2019 that she would retire after four terms serving Indiana’s 5th Congressional District, setting off yet another scramble to succeed her as the Republican nominee; 15 candidates competed in the primary.
The winner was a relatively late entry into the race, Victoria Spartz, still in her first term as an Indiana state senator from Noblesville. Spartz, a Ukranian immigrant and businesswoman with a net worth reported as at least $8 million, quickly shook up the race by personally loaning her campaign $750,000 and gaining an endorsement and financial backing from the conservative political action group Club for Growth, resources which moved her into a different league from her lesser-funded competitors. Spartz faced questions raised by her competitors and in local media about her personal finances. In an interview with political reporter Adam Wren, she defended her financial dealings, saying she made her fortune through family-owned property development and her work as a financial consultant and accountant after marrying and coming to the U.S. from Ukraine in 2000; an Indianapolis Business Journal article in September noted the Hamilton County property holdings of her husband’s family and how proceeds from real-estate dealings had helped to fund her campaign..
Spartz also faced suggestions that she entered the congressional race to avoid a stiff challenge in her primary bid for a second term in the state Senate. The Indianapolis Star also reported suggestions of a conflict of interest in her authoring a bill in 2020 to scale back state regulation of wetlands; the Star article noted that her family business clashed with state environmental regulators over development of wetlands, Spartz won the nomination with nearly 40% of the vote, more than twice that of the second-place finisher.
For the first time in the district’s nearly four-decade history, it was widely suggested that winning the Republican nomination might not be an automatic ticket to Capitol Hill. Democrats pinned their hopes on Christina Hale, a former state legislator who gave up her seat in 2016 to join John Gregg’s unsuccessful run for governor as the nominee for lieutenant governor. In two terms in the Indiana House, Hale consolidated the Democratic hold on a legislative district which had long been held by Republicans and built a reputation as a bipartisan and effective legislator despite serving in a badly outnumbered Democratic minority. What also distinguished Hale was her fundraising. Campaign finance reports filed in September 2020 showed that Hale continued to outraise Spartz in donations from supporters, with about $1.7 million compared to about $1 million reported in contributions to Spartz. However, Spartz also reported an additional personal loan of $200,000 to her campaign; Hale did not report making any personal loans to her campaign.
Late-August articles in the Indianapolis Business Journal and The Indianapolis Star offered the most detailed profiles to date of the candidates, their campaigns and approaches to governing — Spartz as an uncompromising, Trump-backing conservative focused on preserving the American freedoms she had to leave her native country to secure, and Hale as a moderate Democrat known for bipartisan legislating and personal story as a once-single mom who became an advocate for the well-being of children.
The Democratic takeover of the U.S. House in 2018 was largely credited to a nationwide political realignment in the suburbs, particularly among women and the college-educated. The trend has not been as apparent in Indiana; Brooks won her last term in office by more than 40,000 votes and 13 percentage points. Hamilton County, the heart of the 5th Congressional District, has shown signs of it, most recently in 2019 with the unexpected election of Democrats to city councils in Carmel and Fishers that had never had a member who wasn’t a Republican. Democrats also won the mayor’s office in Zionsville in neighboring Boone County, where public office has always been a lock for Republican candidates. Most of the national political analysis, though, still classified the district as leaning Republican in 2020, although Sabato’s Crystal Ball in early June reclassified the race as a toss-up; the Cook Political Report did the same in August . A Sabato analyst told The Indianapolis Star that the change was based in part on new internal polling released by Hale’s campaign that showed the candidate ahead; Spartz’s campaign countered that the internal polling wasn’t credible. A poll in August, released by the Club for Growth, showed Spartz in the lead.
On Election Night, the results defied most pundits’ expectations but were true to the district’s history — or at least true enough for Spartz to continue its run of GOP representation. She won 50% of the vote to Hale’s 46%, with a Libertarian accounting for the remainder — significantly less than the winning shares of 60% or more that her new colleagues in the Indiana congressional delegation often expect, but one that might increase after the state’s Republican-dominated state legislature redraws district lines for 2022. – Kevin Morgan