New in power, Indiana House leader faces tough election race

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Big money has been pouring in for a closing days rush to protect the legislative seat for one of the top Republicans in the Indiana Statehouse.

Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston is trying to hold onto his suburban Indianapolis district that’s shifted away from reliably Republican as he faces his first election since March, when he took over the powerful position that controls much of the General Assembly’s action.

Huston’s seat is among those being targeted by Democrats as they look to break the two-thirds supermajority House Republicans have had for the past eight years.

Republicans will almost assuredly keep a sizeable House majority, but GOP organizations and business lobbying groups have written checks for more than $350,000 to Huston’s campaign just since the beginning of October, state campaign finance reports show. That pushes his bankroll past $1.2 million as he faces Democratic challenger Aimee Rivera Cole, who received 46% of the vote against Huston two years ago.

That Fishers district is among a cluster of legislative seats across the northern Indianapolis suburbs that Democrats are working to seize, potentially benefiting from the national shift of suburban women away from Republicans under President Donald Trump that has also led to a tight campaign for the area’s congressional seat.

Huston has spent heavily on Indianapolis TV advertising, saying “This is not a year to not take every possible consideration.” He said he also tries not to wade into debates over national politics.

“I say, ‘I’ve got all the same frustrations with the federal government as you do, but that’s not my role,'” Huston said. “My role is to help and put the state on a good path.”

Cole and Democratic candidates in nearby suburban districts have tried to paint the Republican incumbents as fallen out of step with voters. In a black-and-white TV commercial styled on a 1950s comedy, Huston and Rep. Jerry Torr of Carmel are labeled as “wrong for today’s Hamilton County” over votes on gay rights and abortion.

Cole, who is a lawyer for Travelers Insurance Co., said she has heard from voters that defeating Huston would demonstrate the frustration some people have over education funding and other issues.

“I do think it would send a pretty strong message,” Cole said. “All of these races being so close in this area send a message that values that are important to us aren’t being adequately represented.”

About a dozen of the 100 Indiana House seats appear most targeted by the political parties in Tuesday’s election.

Besides Huston and Torr, Democrats are also trying to defeat Rep. Donna Schaibley in a northern suburb district and Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer on the east side of Indianapolis.

Close outcomes are possible for South Bend-area seats currently held by GOP Rep. Dale Devon and Democratic Rep. Ross Deal, along with Republican Rep. Martin Carbaugh in Fort Wayne.

But state Republicans are using a massive fundraising advantage to go after several Democratic legislators. Between the legislative campaign committees and the state party organizations, Republicans had raised about $12 million through the end of October to roughly $5 million for Democrats.

Two Democrats in northwestern Indiana’s Lake County — Lisa Beck and Chris Chyung — are facing rematches for GOP legislators they narrowly defeated in 2018. Republicans also are looking to unseat Reps. Terri Austin and Melanie Wright from Anderson-area districts and 10-term Rep. Terry Goodin, who is the last Democrat from the rural southern Indiana districts that were a party stronghold until the last decade.

Republicans are poised to retain a commanding state Senate majority, which is 40-10 heading into the election. Both parties are spending heavily in the northern Indianapolis district that Republican Sen. John Ruckelshaus is defending against Democrat Fady Qaddoura, a former top aide to Mayor Joe Hogsett.

With Republicans holding a 67-33 House majority, Democrats need to pick up at least one seat to end the two-thirds supermajority that allows Republicans to take legislative action even if Democrats aren’t in attendance.

Huston, who was first elected to the Legislature in 2012, became the House speaker after Republican Brian Bosma stepped down from the position he held for the past decade.

Huston’s campaign ads tout state funding for highway projects in his suburban districts and his work with Holcomb, the Republican governor, to attract businesses to the state. In an ad targeting Cole, she’s described as a “risk Fishers can’t afford to take” as she is linked to national Democrats Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

Huston said he believed Republicans had a strong message about the state’s direction and believed they would keep a strong majority in the House.

But when asked how difficult it would be to suffer an election loss just after becoming speaker, Huston replied: “I’m not going to think about that because it’s not a productive thing to think about. I’m doing everything that I can to make it not reality.”

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