Chris Sautter: This midterm may not be so good for Indiana Dems
Thursday, October 30, 2014 11:22 AM
WASHINGTON – There’s a little known fact about Democratic congressional challengers in Indiana. They only defeat Republican incumbents in midterm elections. The last time a Democratic challenger knocked off a Republican incumbent to win a seat in the U.S House of Represenatatives in a presidential year was in 1964 when Lee Hamilton defeated Earl Wilson in the 9th District.
Since 1964 Democrats have defeated congressional Republican incumbents only in off-year elections—1974, 1982, 1990, and 2006. No Democratic Senate candidate has won over an incumbent since Birch Bayh upset 3-term incumbent Senator Homer Capehart in 1962.
So why have Hoosier Democrats only won in midterm elections and why are they not more competitive in this year’s election?
One simple answer to the first question is that Indiana is a Republican state — the “reddest” in the Midwest. The GOP presidential nominee almost always wins in Indiana with coattails large enough to ensure re-election for incumbent Republican members of Congress, while occasionally picking up additional seats held by Democrats. Unlike other states, in Indiana the presidential year only voter is more likely to vote Republican than Democrat.
The Democratic presidential nominee has won Indiana only twice since 1940 — in 1964 and 2008. Lee Hamilton readily admits that Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory paved the way for his first win in 1964. Andy Jacobs also acknowledged that LBJ carried him into the winner’s circle in 1964, although Jacobs won an open seat previously held by a Republican.
Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 over John McCain was too narrow to have coattails. However, Democrats picked up three congressional seats in 2006 in the most competitive districts in the state — the 2nd, the 8th, and the 9th — rendering a Democratic congressional pickup in 2008 unlikely in any event.
The answer to the second question is that midterm elections are historically bad for the party in the White House. Since World War II, the party controlling the White House has lost seats in every midterm election except two--in 1998 and 2002. Indiana Democrats have only knocked off House Republicans in midterm elections when Republicans controlled the White House.
This year, only one Democratic challenger—Joe Bock in Indiana’s 2nd District—appears to be mounting anything approaching a serious campaign. Bock is a quality candidate who has been hammering incumbent Jackie Walorski for her vote last year to shut down the government. Walorski narrowly won this swing district in 2012 and appeared vulnerable a year ago.
But Bock faces both the harsh reality of history and a national party that has turned its back on him. Virtually no national resources are making their way to the 2nd District. Instead, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has all but given up on challenger races and put most of their resources behind trying to save endangered incumbents. Walorski has used her money advantage to soften her own image while demonizing Bock.
Hoosier Democrats currently hold only two seats in the U.S. House, their lowest number since the 1950’s. The odds of Hoosier Democrats picking up additional seats in the near future seem to be long.
Competition in U.S. House elections has been declining for more than 50 years, primarily due to built-in advantages for incumbents, but also due to increased partisan polarization and redistricting. The re-election rate is well over 90%, making it difficult to defeat an incumbent under almost any circumstance.
These days, congressional incumbents lose for one of two reasons — they are embroiled in scandal or they have grown out-of-touch. In the absence of scandal, it usually takes a wave year or at least a mini-wave year to take out even out-of-touch incumbents.
It was the 1974 Democratic wave following the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation that helped Andy Jacobs re-capture the Indianapolis area seat he lost to William Hudnut in Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide re-election. Four other Democrats, Phil Sharp, Floyd Fithian, Dave Evans, and Phil Hayes, also defeated Republican incumbents in 1974.
Frank McCloskey upended two-term incumbent Joel Deckard in the 8th District in 1982, but only after Deckard got drunk and drove into a tree. The Reagan recession helped put McCloskey in a position to win. In 1990 Tim Roemer won back the South Bend area district that John Brademas had held by defeating 5-term incumbent John Hiler. Hiler had lost touch with the district but may have not been a good match to begin with.
It was a Republican wave in 1994 that swept out two Democratic incumbents, McCloskey and Jill Long. It took another 12 years before Democrats would defeat incumbent Republicans: Joe Donnelly over Chris Chocola, Brad Ellsworth over John Hostetler, and Baron Hill over Mike Sodrel. Sodrel had beaten Hill two years earlier in a district that has been trending Republican for some time. The unpopularity of the War in Iraq and George W. Bush’s presidency in general greatly aided their efforts.
The Indiana Democratic Party is struggling much as it did in the early 1980’s. It will take a major rebuilding effort and better national dynamics before Democrats can hope to regain the glory years when they held eight out of 10 congressional seats.
Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.