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Indiana trucking company owner makes another bid for Congress

INDIANAPOLIS — Trucking company owner Mike Sodrel poured more than $1 million into his first campaign for a southern Indiana congressional seat nearly two decades ago.

Sodrel won’t say how badly he’s writing a check this time as he seeks to squeeze out a slew of Republican candidates in the May 3 primary for the district that GOP U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth is dropping after six years, making him the only Indiana congressman not to seek re-election.

Sodrel, the 76-year-old owner of Jeffersonville-based Sodrel Truck Lines, is seeking a political comeback in the 9th district where he won a single congressional term in 2004 when he ran for the seat five times between 2002 and 2010.

With the most high-profile Republican candidates so far emphasizing similar conservative policy stances, a big factor could be whether Sodrel follows Hollingsworth’s playbook from 2016, when he and his father spent nearly $4 million to overwhelm the main GOP rivals.

Former state senator Erin Houchin of Salem and business consultant Stu Barnes-Israel of Greensburg have raised enough money to start airing TV ads aimed at standing out among the nine Republicans seeking the nomination of the party in the heavily GOP district.

Houchin finished second to Hollingsworth in the 2016 primary race after being overwhelmed by his big spending. She lined up endorsements from several state and local Republican officials. Her campaign is bolstered by her ties to GOP activists from her previous terms as former U.S. Sen. Dan Coats’ Southeast Indiana director and Republican 9th District chairwoman.

Houchin, 45, resigned his state Senate seat in February to focus on the congressional race about three weeks after Hollingsworth announced he would not be seeking re-election, which Houchin said gave her and other candidates little time to ramp up campaigns.

“Apart from what people spend on these races, and we need to do that to communicate with voters, the most important thing is to have a message that resonates with people,” Houchin said. “I am the only candidate out of nine in the past decade to have a proven track record in the fight for our conservative values.”

Barnes-Israel, a 35-year-old army veteran who served in Afghanistan, comes across as a fresh face and political outsider with business experience through his work with global consulting firm McKinsey & Company and the Chicago-based Citadel Investment. He also won the endorsement of former Trump-appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Barnes-Israel said he returned to his hometown of Greensburg and decided to run for the congressional seat because of his experience dealing with national security and global economic issues.

“A lot of people can pass on the rhetoric and talk about the issues, talk about how bad inflation is, how bad the supply chain crisis is, Joe Biden’s mismanagement of the economy, but not in able to talk about real solutions,” Barnes-Israel said.

Sodrel was the Republican nominee for the 9th District seat in four consecutive elections in 2002-2008 against Democrat Baron Hill, with Hill winning three times. Sodrel was last a candidate in 2010 when he lost in the Republican primary to the current senator. Todd Young in the largely rural district covering most of southeastern Indiana.

Sodrel touts his business successes in his campaign and points to his two years in the U.S. House as an advantage over his rivals, but does not highlight it in his television ads.

“I’m not a political animal,” Sodrel said in an interview. “I have not spent my life in politics. I don’t need work. I’m not doing this to feed my ego. If I didn’t think I could be the most effective for the district, the state, and the United States, I would stay home.

Sodrel said he is largely funding his campaign now – and he has the wealth to do so. His candidate financial disclosure report lists the value of the trucking company he founded at between $5 million and $25 million, with revenue of more than $5 million in 2021.

Sodrel’s campaign and the others did not release campaign fundraising information before Friday’s Federal Election Commission filing deadline.

Indiana University civics professor Paul Helmke said he was surprised campaigns weren’t more intense because early voting has already begun in the primary race.

Houchin’s status as the only female candidate and her close ties to the party could help her in what will likely be a low-turnout election since Indiana has no high-profile primary races in the statewide this year, said Helmke, who is a former Republican candidate for the US Senate and mayor of Fort Wayne.

Sodrel’s wealth could be a wildcard in the final weeks of the campaign.

“Just the fact that he’s spent money in the past and he’s been in the office before, you’d be concerned about him,” Helmke said. “Primaries are tricky and crowded primaries are the trickiest.”

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