Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly concedes to his Republican opponent Mike Braun on election night at the Hyatt Regency in Indianapolis, Nov. 6, 2018. Jenna Watson, email@example.com
Ever since a young Democrat named Evan Bayh shocked the Indiana political establishment in 1988 by winning the governorship, the path forward for Democrats in this red state has been clear: unite moderates and progressives.
For the next 25 years, Bayh and other moderate Democrats walked a political tightrope to win gubernatorial and Senate races even as Republicans controlled most statewide offices, legislative and Congressional seats.
Political pundits say their successes made Indiana appear a lighter color of red than it is. The problem Democrats face now is that road map has stopped leading to victory.
John Gregg ran as a moderate but lost the governorship in 2012 and 2016. Bayh himself, who once seemed untouchable, lost a Senate race in 2016. And now Joe Donnelly has lost his Senate seat on a message of bipartisanship.
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It has left Democrats looking for answers. Can they still win a statewide race in Indiana? Or is the state too deeply red as national politics drive us more toward hyper partisanship? What’s the path forward?
“I’ve always thought it must be easy to be a Republican in Indiana, like running down hill,” Bayh told IndyStar, “But the only way for us to be successful is to unite the progressives and the moderates, show you have a plan for economic growth, growing jobs and wages, that you are for a strong national defense, but that you are fiscally conservative and won’t waste tax dollars.”
He paused. “I keep going back to, what’s the alternative?”
In last week’s election where moderate Democrats made significant gains in the Midwestern sister states of Kansas, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, Donnelly lost his seat in Indiana on his own message of moderation by about 8 percentage points.
Elsewhere, successful Democrats won by reaching affluent suburban voters, especially women, who were concerned by the tone of President Donald Trump’s administration. The reality of the demographics in Indiana, though, is this is largely a rural state without as many urban, much less suburban, voters.
And Trump is popular here.
Donnelly ran on a platform of working with the president. But the state’s Republican voters came out in large margins for GOP businessman Mike Braun, for whom Trump campaigned hard. Also, Donnelly’s message against the “radical left” didn’t do much to energize the state’s few Democratic strongholds and drive the base to the polls.
“Here is poor Joe Donnelly,” said Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville, “who Republicans are rejecting because he’s a Democrat and some Democrats are rejecting because he’s being too friendly to the Republicans. In World War I, they would call that no man’s land.”
No man’s land is not an enviable place to be as the 2020 presidential and gubernatorial election looms. So what’s next for Indiana’s Democrats?
The disintegration of a Democrat coalition
In 1988, Bayh stitched together an unlikely coalition of voters in rural southern counties, urban areas like Indianapolis and the steel towns along Lake Michigan to win the governorship for Democrats for the first time in two decades.
Republicans thought Bayh’s success was a fluke, the result of a charismatic young man with a positive message and a well-thought-of father. But then Frank O’Bannon followed the same path to victory and Democrats held onto the office for 16 years. Bayh went on to win a Senate seat in 1998 and again in 2004.
“The only way for a Democrat to win here is to unite progressives and the vast majority of moderates, otherwise the math just doesn’t work,” Bayh said. “But back then people tended to vote more on the individual and split their ticket more.”
This decade, Bayh’s coalition has fallen apart. The southern Indiana voters — more conservative on social issues — were the first to slip away, aligning more with Republicans.
Dion said southern counties were filled with hard-core conservative Democrats, voters who were anti-abortion and pro-gun rights, but also sided with labor. But as generations changed, manufacturing declined and Christian voters began aligning more strongly with Republican values, those votes have slipped away from Democrats.
Fewer southern counties voted for Gregg in 2012 than had voted for Bayh and O’Bannon. By 2016, Republicans won nearly all of southern Indiana.
This year, they did win it all.
“It’s been a slow unfolding realignment of the parties,” Dion said, “and finally those conservative voters just jumped and said they’re voting for Republicans from here on out.”
Gregg, the former Indiana House speaker and a Democrat from Sandborn in Knox County, thought he could appeal to his fellow southerners.
“I did find it interesting that counties that normally the Democrats won, even I had won a number of times, now are going in the upper 50s (percent) and even 60s (percent) for Republicans,” Gregg said. “But I’m not ready to give up on those voters yet.”
The political landscape got worse for Democrats in 2016 when blue collar workers found inspiration in Trump. The president carried two of the three steel counties along Lake Michigan and lowered the Democrats’ margin of victory in the third one, Lake County.
That year, Democrats knew Hillary Clinton wouldn’t carry the state, but thought Gregg and Bayh could win close races. Instead, as voters in northwest and southern Indiana slipped away, they lost.
Gregg thinks Democrats may appeal to suburban voters in time. Donnelly made progress in Republican-dominated Hamilton County, the most affluent in the state, with 44 percent of the vote, but substantially lost the other six Indy metro counties.
“What had been a part of that Democratic base” Gregg said, “the blue collar worker, labor union worker and rural person, is switching to become a Republican quicker than some of the suburban voters have become Democrats.”
A tough loss for Donnelly, Democrats
Donnelly’s resounding loss in nearly every corner of the state shocked Gregg. He doesn’t think any Senate candidate has campaigned as hard as Donnelly in decades. Donnelly, he said, made a point to come home frequently and hit every county.
“I thought that would pay dividends,” Gregg said.
When Donnelly won in 2012, he benefited from outside factors: he ran a campaign against a far-right candidate who took out a beloved Republican moderate in the primary, and who had a political gaffe in the final days before the election.
Poltical pundits say Donnelly may have swung too far to the right, praising Trumps’ border wall and criticizing the “radical left” in campaign ads. His campaign most likely thought the number of moderates Donnelly could win over would outweigh the number of left-wing Democrats he would lose.
Kip Tew, a former Indiana Democratic Party chairman who ran Obama’s 2008 Indiana campaign, said Donnelly did little to excite African Americans and those in the left wing of the party, a coalition that helped propel Democrats to victory elsewhere in the country.
“When he ran the ads he ran on (supporting) the wall and picking a fight with the liberal base, it had an effect,” Tew said. “And I was worried the whole time, that the effect would be our base didn’t come out.”
Andy Downs, political scientist at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said Donnelly’s formula was wrong and the result was a lower-than-expected turnout from his base throughout Indiana.
“Every election is winnable, but Democrats have to ask themselves if the model that was so successful for them in the ‘80s and ‘90s is still the right model today,” Downs said.
It wasn’t just Donnelly’s loss that proved the Democrats have a problem in Indiana: they didn’t come close to winning any of the seven U.S. House seats in Indiana the Republicans control, they haven’t been able to break the supermajorities in both chambers of the Statehouse, and they no longer hold any statewide elected offices.
As the states prepare to redistrict following the 2020 census, Democrats only have one more election to gain enough seats to hold a majority in the Statehouse to avoid gerrymandering in the Republicans’ favor.
Democrats would have to win 18 seats in the House or 16 seats in the Senate in the next election in order to take over control of either chamber. Without an unexpected blue wave in Indiana in 2020, the odds don’t look good.
Indiana GOP Chairman Kyle Hupfer said Hoosiers are voting for Republicans because they’ve built a trustworthy brand and showed sustained success at governing.
“That brand is something that we take very seriously,” he said, “and I think it’s the cornerstone of our success right now. It’s why we believe it will be difficult in the future (for Democrats) so long as we continue to deliver results and keep Indiana on the right track.”
A few hopeful signs in state legislature
Tuesday wasn’t all bad news for Indiana Democrats.
They picked up three seats in the Indiana House and flipped their first seat in the Indiana Senate in about 30 years.
Those are in areas where Democrats traditionally have been competitive though. The House seats are in West Lafayette and Northwest Indiana and the Senate seat includes a large chunk of Marion County and portions of Carmel.
Progressives celebrated when J.D. Ford defeated conservative firebrand Mike Delph for an Indiana Senate seat.
Ford’s win was a major success for the Indiana Young Democrats, a longtime organization that has recently rebooted, growing to 300 members in 21 counties.
Spokeswoman Heather Katrina said the organization supported both Ford and another winning House candidate, Chris Chyung, who became the only Asian American in the state legislature in defeating Rep. Harold Slager in Lake County.
Katrina also cited county-level candidates who won in typically conservative areas: Ilana Stonebraker on Tippecanoe County Council and Allyson Claybourn on the Newburgh Town Council near Evansville.
“For us, it’s really been about building that base from the ground up and focusing on supporting young candidates,” Katrina said. “We are focused on helping establish county chapters and helping them build out.”
Democrats assess the losses
The Indiana Democratic Party isn’t making major organizational changes, but they will look at the data and reevaluate where they are spending resources, state chairman John Zody said.
Zody’s term expires in two more years and he plans to keep his job despite the party’s recent struggles.
“As long as I feel like I can still make a difference and make some gains, (and) I continue to tell people what our positive message is, I’ll stay,” Zody said.
He said the party will keep talking about its core values: push back on cuts to early and public education funding, protect access to affordable healthcare, ensure Hoosiers are equally protected under the law and fight partisan gerrymandering.
Zody argued Democrats are on the right track and will continue to slowly make improvements. This year they had more first-time, millennial and female candidates than ever before. It’s imperative to continue building that bench, he said.
That’ll continue as the party switches focus to municipal races in 2019, an area they’ve continued to do well in, given the losses in other elections.
“Democrats have won statewide here before. We will do it again. It just doesn’t happen overnight,” Zody said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat anything or make excuses, but I do believe elections are cyclical, the pendulum does swing.”
Looking to the suburbs for a way forward
Some Democrats think the future of the party is a progressive message for suburban voters.
“We are more competitive in the suburbs than we have ever been,” Tew said, “and I think we have to find candidates that will appeal to college-educated women, because that’s where the future of the party is.”
Tew pointed to Democrats such as Evansville Rep. Ryan Hatfield and Gary Sen. Eddie Melton as potential younger candidates who could excite a base and have a bright future in Indiana politics.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a 36-year-old gay veteran who has built a national profile, is another candidate political scientists say could build up the Democratic party. However, he likely has his eyes on national office.
Buttigieg thinks the path forward will be different than the traditional Indiana Democratic strategy. He cited an AP poll that found the only age group that voted as a majority for Republicans Tuesday was 65 and older.
He also pointed to Obama, who was able to unite voters in 2008 on a message of hope, which coupled with a recession gave a presidential Democratic candidate a historic win in Indiana. Still, he said, there’s lessons to be learned about how Democrats can reach more types of voters.
Buttigieg suggested a laser-sharp focus on the issues, saying Democrats can make progress on criminal justice reform, health care and the economy while explaining their goals on taxes and regulations.
“We have to find issues that cut across some of the typical lines,” he said. “I strongly believe we should contest every county in every part of the state.”
Former Lt. Gov. candidate Christina Hale, 44, whose name has been thrown around as a potential 2020 gubernatorial candidate, said Democrats need to modernize their campaigns and reach voters where they are consuming media, much like she said Trump has.
“We have to be poised to communicate with people in the ways that are convenient and comfortable to them and that’s changing every day,” she said. “And that pace of change is only going to accelerate so we better be ready.”
She said Democrats also have to continue to build solid ground games in counties throughout Indiana.
Democrats in Hamilton County, for instance, contested Republicans for multiple offices this year despite the GOP’s decades-long domination of county elections. Volunteers built a ground game by knocking on doors and Democrats think those votes could pay off in future state elections.
“I think what happens is sometimes we forget to consider the mechanics of elections,” Hale said, “and we think about the policy and the branding and the messaging. Much of it comes down to active county organizations as the boots on the ground doing the things that need to get done to get people excited.”
Hale said Democrats missed an opportunity to capitalize on the fight for equality after Republicans thrust Indiana in the national spotlight by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which some believe will allow businesses to discriminate against gay and transgender customers.
“We had one of the most passionate state campaigns to support equality for everyone after RFRA,” she said. “The world was looking at Indiana and what was happening in our statehouse and it was jam packed with activists, but they did not show up at the ballot box.”
She thinks there’s opportunity to run on equality for LGBT Hoosiers, to update the state’s aging water infrastructure, to find solutions for the state’s relatively high infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate. She said Indiana needs high speed rail to link major cities within the state to metro hubs on its borders, like Chicago.
It’s been a long time since a candidate asked Hoosiers to look at the horizon and think of what the state could become, she said.
“We need to bring some ambition back to Indiana,” she said. “I think there is an opportunity to build a collaborative administration that is about getting things done, being a good steward of tax dollars and doing the right things for the right reasons.”
Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at 317-444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.
Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.
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