Ritz kept up the fight all the way through election day when she held a series of press availabilities around central Indiana, while Bennett declined all media interview requests Tuesday.
Brian Howey, editor of Howey Politics Indiana, called the contest the state’s “sleeper race.” Media coverage and interest in the race had been diminished significantly by the higher profile races for a U.S. Senate seat and the Governor’s office.
Ritz, a longtime registered Republican who switched party affiliation to run against Bennett, intentionally set up her own campaign headquarters and stayed away from the Democratic field offices.
Yet nationally, the contest has been the radar screen of supporters and opponents alike of the massive education overhaul that Bennett championed with the backing of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and the GOP-controlled legislature.
Those sweeping changes included the rapid expansion of charter schools, creation of the nation’s largest school voucher program, a merit pay system that ties teacher pay and tenure to student performance, more high-stakes testing for grade promotion and graduation, and a controversial to A-to-F evaluation system of the state’s schools.
Bennett’s campaign for his second term focused on those changes as cutting-edge reforms that make Indiana the model for the nation and he promised more to come.
Ritz’s campaign was decidedly anti-Bennett, portraying him as a heavy- handed advocate of top-down decisions that forced federal and state decisions on local schools.
It’s a message that seemed to resonate with some small-government Republicans and with some of the state’s Tea Party groups who professed unhappiness with some of federal education standards that Bennett seemed to embrace. The Howey/DePauw poll showed that Bennett, who had associated himself strongly with other Republicans on the ticket, was polling at only 68 percent with voters who described themselves as “very conservative” and at 52 percent with voters who called themselves “somewhat conservative.”