GOSHEN, Ind. — An Indiana state senator and tea party favorite who finished second in the Republican U.S. Senate primary will get a second shot at Washington thanks to the resignation of his former boss, Rep. Mark Souder, who is quitting over an affair with a part-time staffer.
But almost immediately after he announced his political comeback, Republican Marlin Stutzman had to spend part of his first day of the campaign fielding questions about whether his team was involved in making public long-running rumors about the affair that brought Souder down.
Stutzman, considered by many a front-runner for the GOP nomination for the seat, said Thursday that his campaign did not spread word of the affair and disputed that he had more to gain from Souder's fall than others. He called any suggestion that his campaign had a role a "smear tactic."
"They're definitely coming after us because they know we have a chance to win this seat," said Stutzman, who once worked as a district assistant for Souder and is also friends with the family of the married, part-time aide.
Rumors of an affair had dogged Souder – an evangelical Christian who espoused strong views on traditional marriage, abstinence and abortion – long before his tearful announcement this week that he had cheated on his wife of 36 years with the staffer and would resign, effective Friday.
Allen County GOP Chairman Steve Shine said he had heard talk of an affair for about six months, and at least one of Souder's opponents reported receiving anonymous phone calls about the matter days before the May 4 primary. U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., confronted Souder about the rumors after being approached by a reporter, said Matt Lloyd, a spokesman for the House Republican Conference.
Stutzman said he first heard talk several years ago about an inappropriate relationship between Souder and Tracy Jackson, a part-time staffer in Souder's Indiana district whose husband, Brad, is a pilot and flew Stutzman around on occasions during his Senate campaign. Stutzman worked years ago as a special assistant to Souder in the district. He said he and another staffer confronted the congressman, who called the allegations a "vicious rumor."
"I trusted my boss and what he said," Stutzman said. "I did my job, we took it to him and let him deal with it. Unfortunately, we see now what happened."
He said he let the matter drop and didn't think more about it until he, too, heard rumors of an affair shortly before the primary.
Monica Boyer, a leader of the Kosciusko County tea party group Silent No More, said she was "heartbroken" over Souder's actions but said that even if a political campaign tried to use that knowledge for gain, "Souder needed to go."
"I want a man in Washington with integrity," she said.
Stutzman, who held Coats to less than 40 percent of the vote in the five-way primary, has gained a strong following among tea party voters disenchanted with Washington.
Boyer's group didn't endorse candidates in the Republican primary but plans to back Stutzman, who she said fits the profile of a candidate who is "fiscally, socially and morally conservative."
Stutzman acknowledged that he may have to win over voters who are troubled by the finger-pointing.
"We just don't trust people right now," he said.
He'll also have to fend off criticism from state Democrats. They say Stutzman's entry in the congressional race means he can't claim he isn't a career politician, as he did in the race against Coats.
Stutzman, who first won election to the Indiana House in 2002 at age 26, said he'd rather be running his farm in Howe but thinks Washington needs fresh blood.
"This is not about an office, this is about a cause," he said. "We have to change Washington."
Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels hasn't yet set a special election in the 3rd District to complete Souder's term. Caucuses of Republican and Democratic committeemen will pick the special election nominees.
The Republican field to succeed Souder will likely be crowded. Other possible candidates include two Republicans whom Souder defeated in the primary – Bob Thomas and Phil Troyer – as well as state Reps. Randy Borror of Fort Wayne and Wes Culver of Goshen, Fort Wayne City Councilwoman Liz Brown and Allen County Superior Court Judge Dan Heath.
The Democratic ticket is set with Tom Hayhurst, a former Fort Wayne city councilman who got who got 46 percent of the vote against Souder in 2006. Hayhurst is his party's nominee for November's general election, and State Democratic Chairman Dan Parker said he also would likely be Democrats' pick for the special election.