Republicans have their man in the 2nd

Article published Jan. 27, 2008 in the South Bend Tribune:


by JACK COLWELL

Luke Puckett now appears almost certain to be the Republican challenger opposing Congressman Joe Donnelly, D-Granger, in Indiana’s 2nd District this fall.

Puckett starts short on money and with long odds against him; with low name recognition but high hopes.

“I think it’s a winnable race or I wouldn’t be getting into it,” says Puckett.

He plans soon to file officially as a candidate for the Republican congressional nomination and then travel throughout the district to start getting known and to improve odds for an upset of Donnelly.

Donnelly’s moderate record and rhetoric during his first term seem to be in tune with the district, making him a tough target for Republicans, so tough that Republicans with far better political credentials and name recognition than Puckett have chosen not to run.Others can file, and it would not be surprising if some very unusual candidate, such as a Farmer Hass type from the past, also seeks the GOP nomination. Puckett, however, now appears to be the choice of party leaders. He almost certainly will be the nominee, unless some Republican who could personally finance a campaign or has wide name recognition suddenly decides to make the race.

For those who don’t know Puckett — and that’s at least 99 percent of the voters in the sprawling 12-county district — he is a 38-year-old Goshen businessman who describes himself as “an opportunist.”

He seeks opportunity in business ventures, and now he will venture into politics to seek the opportunity to serve in Congress.

Puckett says of his business approach: “I look for investments, ideas that will be profitable. I’m an entrepreneur and small business guy.”

In one successful venture, he operates a firm providing materials for pontoon boats, with sales nationally. He lives in the part of Elkhart County that is in the 2nd District, thus negating the complaints about residency that were leveled against former Congressman Chris Chocola, who actually resided in the 3rd District. One reason Puckett sees opportunity in a race against Donnelly is that the district is split pretty evenly between parties.

He is confident that if he can get off to a good start, eventually with a poll showing that victory could be within grasp, that he will get resources from Republicans nationally who want to reclaim the 2nd, a battleground district in which Donnelly beat Chocola, then the Republican incumbent, in 2006.

Donnelly thus far has had more criticism from Democrats who find him too moderate than from Republicans during his first term. For example, anti-war protesters wanting him to support a quicker pull-out of troops from Iraq have picketed Donnelly’s South Bend office.

If Puckett is to win, he will need to convince Republicans who may be looking favorably toward Donnelly that they should stay with the GOP in the congressional race. A Democratic presidential nominee who proved to be unpopular in Indiana could help Puckett in this. So could low esteem for the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Puckett says he will hit Donnelly on two main issues:

1. “Raising taxes.”

2. “Not supporting our troops in Iraq.”

Puckett concedes it could be a hard sell to convince voters that Donnelly is a big-spending Democrat in favor of raising taxes. After all, Donnelly voted against the House Democratic budget. He is associated with the fiscal conservative “Blue Dogs.” And Congressional Quarterly lists him as fifth from the bottom among House Democrats in party support on party-line issues.

What roll calls don’t show, Puckett says, is a political game in which House Democratic leaders tell Democrats in more conservative districts they have a pass to vote against the leadership as long as there still is a majority for passage.

“His methodology is still pushing for it (higher taxes) with Nancy Pelosi and his fellow Democrats,” Puckett contends. Like the anti-war pickets, Puckett disagrees with Donnelly on Iraq, but for just the opposite reasons.

While Donnelly has miffed some of the war critics by insisting that funding not be cut for troops now in Iraq, Puckett sees Donnelly’s support for a call for the president to begin reducing the troop level as undermining the effort in Iraq.

“We should be supporting and pushing for a win, not a pull-out,” Puckett says.

Puckett actually began a very tentative congressional campaign early last year. He filed papers with the Federal Election Commission and loaned $5,000 to his campaign committee to get started. By mid-June, however, he had changed his mind, telling supporters that he would not run. He paid back the loan to himself.

But when nobody else stepped forward, Puckett, with encouragement from some influential Republicans, decided to think again about making the race. Now, Puckett says, he is ready to run, this time with no turning back.

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