Welcome to the seventh edition of District Rundown, Split Ticket’s biweekly House analysis series. The last publication focused on Colorado’s 8th district, a marginal Biden seat that Republicans are now favored to flip. Today’s release brings us to the heart of the Rust Belt to look at another high-stakes GOP target: Indiana’s 1st district.
With just about two weeks remaining until election day, Split Ticket plans to work assiduously to publish four more District Rundowns covering New Mexico’s 1st, Ohio’s 1st, Oregon’s 5th, and New York’s 22nd. In deciding which seats to analyze based on public input, the overarching goal was to ensure geographic diversity by selecting targets from around the nation.
Indiana’s 1st district (Biden +8.4) is the only competitive seat in the Hoosier State following redistricting, which shored up Victoria Spartz’s 5th district by removing northern Marion County (Indianapolis) and adding in large swaths of Howard (Kokomo) and Delaware (Muncie) counties. If the old 5th could be considered an ancestrally-Republican, albeit Democratic trending seat, then the 1st would belong in the opposite category.
The marginally-Democratic district lies in Indiana’s northwestern corner along Lake Michigan’s southern shore. It underwent trivial changes to its LaPorte County boundaries during redistricting, but basically remained the same in terms of both geography and partisanship. While the 1st’s aforementioned Democratic lean is now modest thanks to favorable Republican trends among working-class white voters, it was insurmountable before the Trump era.
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
In 2012, for example, Barack Obama carried this district by roughly 20 points.* Hillary Clinton won by a similar 12 point margin in 2016, though her vote share fell visibly below Obama’s (54 vs. 60%). Other Indiana Democrats who outran their state’s presidential lean, like Joe Donnelly (2018) and John Gregg (2016), carried the seat by Obama-level margins despite rightward trends. Their performances can be explained by the concept of down ballot lag, which Split Ticket has analyzed before.
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
But shifts can only be delayed to a certain extent, as Biden’s 8 point 2020 victory in the district showed. That mild win was actually the narrowest posted by a Democratic presidential candidate post-2000. The results accentuated a burgeoning realignment in one of the nation’s exemplary industrial seats.
Republicans like Donald Trump appealed to working-class white voters by advocating populism and protectionist trade policies, both of which resonated in seats like the 1st, where the beleaguered steel industry is an important employer. Though WWCs accounted for most of the shift in baseline partisanship between 2012 and 2020, Trump also made inroads within the district’s top minority communities: Gary and Hammond.
Throughout this period of gradual change, long-time Democrat Pete Visclosky easily won reelection to various versions of the 1st district. First elected in 1984 after defeating embattled Congresswoman Katie Hall in the Democratic primary, Visclosky never faced a close general election in his career.
He tended to outrun the top of the ticket in presidential years, though Republicans only ever pitted weak challengers, like the perennial Mark Leyva, against him. Visclosky retired from Congress in 2020, bringing decades of electoral prowess and influence on the Appropriations Committee with him.
Luckily for Democrats, an excellent recruit had been waiting in the wings: North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan. As the son of an inveterate state senator who enjoyed significant name recognition in populated Hammond, Mrvan was well-positioned to continue Visclosky’s legacy. As a result of his own bona fides and the weaknesses of Leyva, Mrvan won by 16 points – double Biden’s margin in the 1st district.
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
With background information cleared up, let’s break down the key geographic and demographic features of the 1st district. Outside of Gary, East Chicago, Hammond, and Merrillville, this seat has an overwhelmingly-white population. Perhaps a sign of the times, most of these whites have trended Republican.
But some, like those in the college town of Valparaiso, actually moved left between the 2012 and 2020 presidential contests. College-educated Illinois expats also fit into this category (i.e. those in Crown Point), though they are not by any means assured supporters of either party. Both shifts are indicative of ongoing educational polarization.
In terms of district voting, the most important county is undoubtedly Lake, which accounts for 66% of the 1st’s population according to the latest census data. While the county is redder than it was a decade ago thanks to the continuing attrition of white Democrats, large black and Hispanic populations in Gary and Hammond kept the county (Biden +15) roughly twice as blue as the district in 2020. It remains crucial to victory for either party, but should worry Democrats long-term as Republicans lock down more white voters in addition to the base they already enjoy in southern Lake (i.e. Crown Point).
Further east is Porter County, which, like Lake, shifted rightward at the presidential level during the Trump-era. It only makes up 23% of the seat’s total population, but provides Republicans with a lot of valuable votes thanks to its Trump +6 baseline. In other words, lopsided margins in Porter could hypothetically win a close congressional race for Republicans assuming Democrats underperform Biden’s mark in Lake.
A small portion of LaPorte County rounds out the district’s eastern-most extent but does not contribute much overall. While the whole county has moved into the Republican column like neighboring Porter, the portion of LaPorte in the 1st district actually backed Biden by 2 points in 2020 thanks to Democratic-leaning Michigan City.
*Author’s Note While the latest iteration of the 1st district did not exist before 2022, the colloquial writing style assumes that it did for the sake of simplicity. Appended numbers indicate how the new seat would have voted historically.
Congressman Frank Mrvan, as discussed above, is the ideal Democratic candidate to hold down a district trending against his own party. His family name and electoral experience helped him post a relative overperformance of 7 points according to Split Ticket’s WAR model. While his margin could have been trimmed by a more credible Republican opponent, it is clear that Mrvan’s own strengths as a candidate still would have applied to some extent.
This year Mrvan faces a capable foil: Air Force veteran Jennifer-Ruth Green. One of the GOP’s most impressive first-time candidates, Ruth Green comes from Crown Point, part of Lake County’s Republican constituency. Her residence and superior fundraising apparatus delivered a primary victory earlier this year and should keep Mrvan, whose base takes in the northern half of the county, within striking distance.
Ruth Green, a black woman, epitomizes one of the most diverse House candidate classes fielded in competitive seats by the GOP in the party’s history. Although her campaign has mostly focused on advocating conservative policy, Ruth Green has also made issue of the publicization of military service records which cover a sensitive incident in which she was sexually-assaulted on duty. Politico recently wrote an excellent profile of her campaign, which can be read here.
There has been no recent, public polling of Indiana’s 1st district, making regional predictions much more reliant on fundamentals and presumptions about candidate quality than survey data. RMG Research did publish a poll showing Mrvan ahead 47-40% in May, but those numbers are practically-useless now given the Dobbs decision and the level of undecideds breaking toward Republican candidates.
From a pecuniary standpoint, Ruth Green has blown past Republican expectations and consistently-outraised Mrvan. It is fairly unusual for incumbents, especially ones with strong electoral backgrounds, to have difficulty matching their challengers financially. When sitting lawmakers do fall behind, though, there can be significant consequences.
The 1st district is part of the expensive Chicago media market, making fundraising advantages more impactful in terms of monopolizing time on the airwaves. Ruth Green’s raw fundraising lead over Mrvan stands at around $500K as of this writing, a tighter figure than in months past. More worrying for the incumbent, who actually outspent Ruth Green according to the latest reports, is his $400K cash-on-hand deficit.
Adding to Ruth Green’s internal edge is spending by outside Republican groups, which topped expenditures by national Democrats $5.5 to $3 million based on current numbers. While campaigns do get ‘more for their buck’ than do PACs and federal groups, a $2 million gap is still meaningful when it comes to advertising. Perhaps Democrats are banking on Mrvan’s high name recognition in Lake County, which could neutralize some of the benefits that the GOP has enjoyed by this metric.
BENCHMARKS AND EXPECTATIONS
The territory encompassed by Indiana’s 1st district has a Democratic congressional heritage lasting almost a century, but has finally moved into reach for the GOP thanks to the realignment. Assuming a Republican-leaning midterm, ongoing trends *could* be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in this Biden +8 seat.
This district is technically more Democratic down ballot, and Mrvan is certainly a strong incumbent with a good reputation, but for the first time in recent memory Republicans *also* have a credible nominee putting wind behind their sails.
If forced to pick a winner today, Split Ticket would stick with the tried-and-tested Mrvan name, but we can envision a Ruth Green victory too, especially if the recent national shift toward the Republicans continues to grow as election day nears.
To win, Ruth Green would have to monopolize an even-larger portion of the white vote in Lake County than did Trump while simultaneously counting on stagnant minority turnout in Gary and Hammond. Under this scenario, Ruth Green would probably carry Porter County by double-digits and come within +/- 5 of Mrvan in Lake County.
That’s not the most likely scenario based on Mrvan’s 2020 performance, but it is definitely a possible outcome considering the incumbent has only run one campaign in this seat, against a bad opponent no less. If the unexpected does happen, Mrvan would exemplify the common political adage: patterns are patterns until they aren’t.
This seat was rated TOSSUP before the post-Dobbs generic ballot polling peaked for Democrats in September after the special election in New York’s 19th district, but has since stayed in the LEANS DEMOCRATIC column. To reflect improvements that Republicans have benefitted from nationally, along with a heightened upset potential, Indiana’s 1st will be moving back to TOSSUP.
Even if Democrats hold this district in November, trends suggests that Republicans will be able to carry this seat by the end of the decade.
While Split Ticket *will* pick all of its Tossups before the midterms are decided, we are using the next week to rearrange our Tossup board to better mirror national conditions. Indiana’s 1st, for example, is currently a more logical addition to that column than New Mexico’s 2nd, which is moving to LEANS REPUBLICAN.