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COLUMBIA CITY -- It wasn't the chamber he wanted a seat in initially. But nevertheless, Marlin Stutzman is the Republican nominee for a spot in Congress.
Five weeks after losing a U.S. Senate primary he spent eight months campaigning for, the state senator from Howe on Saturday won the GOP's 3rd Congressional District nomination.
"This means a lot," he said, after officially being announced as the winner. "We worked very hard for the U.S. Senate nomination. We didn't expect this to happen at all. I'm very humbled, very honored."
The 34-year-old farmer won the nod at a special caucus of party precinct committee members. It took just two rounds of balloting for him to claim a simple majority of the 407 eligible voters.
Stutzman was no stranger to crowded fields of candidates. In the May 4 Senate primary, he battled four opponents, finishing second to Dan Coats but far ahead of the other three. In this contest, he defeated the 14 other contenders who threw their hat in during the 3.5-week campaign.
Many of the caucus voters and observers said they expected the process to take at least three ballots for a victor to be decided. While Stutzman was considered the favorite heading into the event, his hefty total (180 votes) on the first ballot came as a surprise.
The figure dwarfed his closest competition, State Rep. Randy Borror (67) and Fort Wayne city councilwoman Liz Brown (46).
Stutzman said his focus on building relationships with the committee members, both in this caucus and one held for his state senate nomination two years ago, led to that surprising first-round total.
"That's what people are looking for, they want to know that person in Washington," he said. "You can't know everyone, but people need to know that you're on their side."
Ten of the 15 candidates were eliminated after the first ballot for failing to obtain 5 percent of the vote. Those knocked out included the two Elkhart County candidates, State Rep. Wes Culver (11 votes) and Scott Welsh (0).
While the first round of balloting seemed to make it inevitable, the second round made Stutzman's nomination official. He received 229 votes in that tally, above the 200-vote threshold he needed to claim the simple majority.
Culver said it was an honor to go through the process and he values the rapport developed with the other candidates and district voters as a result. Yet, he said, there was disappointment over not winning.
"We definitely felt like there was a differentiation," Culver said, also noting his geographic disadvantage due to Goshen's location on the fringe of the district. "But apparently that wasn't enough for the voters."
The 3rd District covers eight counties in northeast Indiana, including the eastern and southern portions of Elkhart County. The caucus process, held at Indian Springs Middle School, was required after former U.S. Rep. Mark Souder resigned his seat and the general election nomination on May 18, after admitting an extramarital affair with a staff member.
BIG RADAR BLIP
Stutzman's public service career began in 2002, when at age 26 when he won election to the state House. He ascended to the state Senate in 2009, but wasn't well-known on the national political scene when he declared for the U.S. Senate race in September.
But he ceaselessly trekked across the state in his campaign bus, an effort that garnered him nearly 161,000 votes in the statewide primary. That strong showing made him a large blip on the political radar and a major reason he was one of the first names tossed about when experts speculated on potential Souder successors.
While the recognition from the Senate showing meant something, Stutzman said, it didn't mean everything.
"In a caucus like this, you work hard, try to reach as many people as you can," he said. "It's a sprint, definitely."
The party was required by state law to hold two caucuses, one each for a special and general election. Since both races will conclude on Nov. 2, a motion was made to only hold one vote. During a short recess to discuss the measure's legality, all 15 candidates agreed to withdraw from the second caucus if they lost the first one, allowing the winner to be confirmed by a simple voice vote.
After many long months of debating Republicans in front of rooms full of Republicans, Stutzman said he's anxious to face his Democrat opponent, Tom Hayhurst.
"I'm tired of arguing against Republicans," Stutzman said. "They're my friends. We're in the same party, we have the same goals."
Hayhurst, 67, is a semi-retired physician and a former three-term Fort Wayne city councilman. He was the Democrat nominee in 2006, mounting what Souder labeled as the fiercest fight of his seven re-election bids.
The congressional election veteran will pose a significant challenge, Stutzman said.
"He's well-liked, knowledgeable," he said. "We've got our work cut out for us."
Stutzman became emotional when talking about his family, both while addressing the caucus and speaking with the media. His wife, two young sons, father and other relatives have offered unending support on the campaign trail, he said.
"They're wonderful," he said. "If I didn't have them, I wouldn't be where I am today."
3RD CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICAN CAUCUS RESULTS
406 votes cast -- 204 needed to win, 21 to advance
Marlin Stutzman, Howe -- 180
Randy Borror, Fort Wayne -- 67
Liz Brown, Fort Wayne -- 46
Ryan Elijah, Fort Wayne -- 43
Bob Thomas, Fort Wayne -- 21
Bob Morris, Fort Wayne -- 16
Dennis Wright, Avilla -- 11
Wes Culver, Goshen -- 11
Mike Foster, Fort Wayne -- 5
Joe Schomburg, Fort Wayne -- 4
Rachel Grubb, Auburn -- 1
Greg Dickman, Auburn -- 0
Richard Thonert, Fort Wayne -- 0
Scott Welsh, Goshen -- 0
400 votes cast -- 201 needed to win, 40 to advance
Stutzman -- 229
Borror -- 69
Elijah -- 46
Brown -- 39
Thomas -- 17