U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth became the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate on Saturday, without going through a primary election — a method that brings benefits as well as drawbacks.
Ellsworth, long the presumptive nominee, was chosen over Bob Kern of Marion County by the Democratic Central Committee. After the secret ballots were tallied and the vote announced, committee members and other Democrats at the meeting in Indianapolis gave Ellsworth a standing ovation.
"I'm humbled and I'm very proud at this moment to have the chance to go and represent you," Ellsworth told the crowd.
The Republican candidate, former Sen. Dan Coats, welcomed Ellsworth to the general election race.
"Hoosiers will hear two dramatically different views about the direction our country should be heading, and about the future of Indiana," Coats said.
Coats and Ellsworth are both seeking the seat now held by Democrat Evan Bayh, who said in February that he wouldn't seek re-election.
Republicans have criticized Ellsworth as being anointed without turning to voters, while Democrats say they had no choice. Bayh's announcement came one day before the deadline for candidates to submit the 4,500 signatures needed to get on the primary ballot.
Avoiding a bruising primary may offer Ellsworth some advantages: he didn't have to spend money on commercials and there were no Democratic challengers lining up to attack him.
But a primary is also a chance to experiment with campaign strategies, determine what issues voters respond to and hone your message, said James McCann, a Purdue University political science professor.
"A well-contested primary election where everybody kisses and makes up afterward — that can actually be quite rejuvenating and therapeutic for a party," said McCann. "The lack of a substantive debate and contest here on the Democratic side could be a missed opportunity."
Coats took some political punches during the five-way GOP primary race. Other Republicans portrayed Coats as a rich Washington insider who does not support gun rights and who has lived away from Indiana for too long. Coats said after the primary — in which he won 39 percent of the vote — that it made him a stronger candidate heading into the general election.
Republicans kept up their disapproval of how Democrats chose their nominee. Indiana Republican Chairman Murray Clark called it "the greatest case of voter disenfranchisement in the history of Indiana."
But there doesn't seem to be much voter outrage over the way Ellsworth was chosen, said Karen Kay Leonard, president of the Indiana League of Women Voters, which doesn't endorse specific parties or candidates.
"An open primary's an important thing, but obviously Evan Bayh didn't give Democrats the chance to do some of the things they would have done otherwise," Leonard said.
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