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Democrats face an uphill rust-belt battle in Indiana's crucial district

The hulking Whirlpool plant along U.S. Highway 41 once led this rust-belt city of 120,000 to proudly call itself the Refrigerator Capital of the World. Today, many in Evansville feel left out in the cold.

The 2-million-square-foot factory, the backbone of the local economy for the better part of 55 years, closed in June when Whirlpool shifted production to a facility in Mexico. Employment at the plant, which hit 10,000 at its peak in the 1970s, had dwindled to 1,100 by early this year. Now, the plant sits empty, a haunting symbol of industrial decline.

Why that is so has become a focal point of the midterm election campaign in Indiana's 8th Congressional District - notorious statewide as the Bloody 8th - a crucial battlefield where the winner will help determine which party controls Congress after Nov. 2.

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The move by the district's Democratic incumbent, Brad Ellsworth, to run for Indiana's open Senate seat has given Republican candidate Larry Bucshon an added advantage in a year when the GOP already holds many. But to win, he will need the support of white, working-class men. They hold the key to victory in Indiana's 8th and at least a dozen other rust-belt districts the GOP must gain to take the House of Representatives.

Enter Whirlpool.

"Environmental policies, corporate tax structure and our trillion-dollar borrowing spree have shipped both jobs and capital overseas to distant nations because Washington has sat idly by," is how Dr. Bucshon, a heart surgeon and first-time candidate, explains the factory's closing.

His Democratic rival, Trent Van Haaften, counters with TV ads featuring ex-Whirlpool employees who accuse Dr. Bucshon of wanting to "protect the same tax break that Whirlpool used to outsource jobs to Mexico."

Mr. Van Haaften also blames Whirlpool's closing on the North American free-trade agreement, even though it was negotiated by a Democrat. Bill Clinton signed the Canada-U.S.-Mexico deal in 1993. Mr. Van Haaften wants to "fix" NAFTA. That counts for something in a district with thousands of unionized workers.

But like dozens of Democrats running in competitive districts this year, Mr. Van Haaften plays down his party affiliation. Neither Barack Obama nor his policies are factors he cares to mention. He opposes Mr. Obama's signature health-care law, designed to subsidize the purchase of insurance for millions of low- and middle-income Americans.

Mr. Obama worked tirelessly to overcome a deficit among white, blue-collar voters in his 2008 campaign for the presidency. The effort paid off in Indiana, the most manufacturing-intensive state of them all. Mr. Obama edged past John McCain by a single percentage point, marking the first time a Democrat had carried Indiana since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

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That infatuation is, by all accounts, over. Mr. Ellsworth and four of his Democratic counterparts rode Mr. Obama's coattails to win a majority of Indiana's nine House seats in 2008. This year, if any Democrats win in Indiana, where the unemployment rate still hovers above 10 per cent, it will likely be in spite of the President.

This reversal represents a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Under then-election strategist Rahm Emanuel, now Mr. Obama's chief of staff, the Democrats recruited fiercely conservative candidates such as Mr. Ellsworth to pry swing seats out of Republican hands in 2006 and 2008.

It worked then. But the new recruits have been a poor fit for a caucus led by Nancy Pelosi, the liberal San Francisco congresswoman who runs the House with an iron hand. She twisted Mr. Ellsworth's arm to vote for the health-care bill. That vote is one of the reasons he now trails his Republican rival in the Senate race, Dan Coats, by a wide margin.

"Democrats were able to build a majority by gobbling up Republican districts that were vulnerable in 2006 and 2008. Ours is one of them," explains Robert Dion, a professor of American politics at the University of Evansville. "Now, this district is a juicy prospect for the Republicans. It wants to be a Republican district."

Voters like John Estes, a retired forklift operator and a Tea Party supporter, are one reason Democrats face such an uphill battle this year. Though he identifies with the Tea Party's campaign against government spending, Mr. Estes opposes the health-care law because he fears it will lead to cuts in Medicare, the federal public health-insurance plan for seniors such as him.

"I'm opposed to changing the program now that I'm on it and have paid for it," Mr. Estes says. "And I do not want my [health]records going up to Washington so somebody up there can tell me I don't deserve a hip replacement. I believe that's where they're heading."

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In Indiana's 8th district, Whirlpool is not the only whipping boy.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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