Chris Sautter: What a contested primary means for Democrats
Friday, June 12, 2015 11:46 AM
WASHINGTON – You can usually tell when a nomination is worth something by the number of candidates wanting to run for it. So it is with the Indiana Democratic Party and the chance to take on a wounded Governor Mike Pence.
Former Speaker and 2012 Democratic gubernatorial nominee John Gregg gets a mustache trim on Thursday at Red's Barber Shop. Gregg faces a potential three-way fight for the 2016 nomination, and possible more.
Just a few months ago, former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg was the putative Democratic nominee for governor as former Congressman Baron Hill was quietly transitioning from the gubernatorial to the U.S. Senate race. Now that Pence appears truly vulnerable Gregg faces two opponents, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and State Senator Karen Tallian. Others, including Jim Schellinger who lost the 2008 gubernatorial primary, Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, and State Rep. Ed DeLaney, who spoke out forcefully during the RFRA controversy, have also been mentioned.
Another possible candidate, Democratic House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, recently announced he wouldn’t run, claiming that a competitive primary will reduce the chances of upending Pence. Pelath is calling on Democrats to avoid a “primary free-for-all.” His advice is for the party and the candidates to sort it out and get behind a single candidate by the end of the year.
But do primaries forebode a loss in the general election? Exhibit “A” against that proposition is the presidential nomination battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The long, contentious nominating process that stretched into late spring of 2008 gave Obama tremendous exposure and allowed him to address liabilities, such as his association with Reverend Wright, well in advance of the general election. It also helped give his campaign its great organizational advantage over John McCain and the Republicans.
The Obama example is why both pundits and party faithful have been arguing that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party would be better served by a competitive presidential nominating process this round. One point made in favor of intraparty competition is that a nominee will be better prepared for Republican general election attacks. Another point is that a competitive process will require the nominee and the party to reach consensus positions instead of allowing the nominee to simply dictate positions without input from more progressive rank and file party activists who participate in the nomination process.
Hoosier Democrats who favor avoiding a gubernatorial primary point to 1988. Then, three candidates were seeking the Democratic nomination: State Sen. Frank O’Bannon, Kokomo Mayor Steve Daily, and Secretary of State Evan Bayh. There was no way the son of the iconic Birch Bayh was going to lose that primary and Evan Bayh was clearly the face of the party’s future. O’Bannon decided to avoid losing the primary and joined forces with Bayh to form the winning ticket in the fall. Some Democrats now are suggesting that Ritz follow O’Bannon’s lead and take the second spot to Gregg to provide the unity needed to topple an incumbent governor, albeit a struggling one.
Undoubtedly, a Gregg-Ritz ticket would be a strong one. But it’s not clear it would be any stronger than the Gregg-Simpson ticket that lost in 2012. Vi Simpson didn’t have the statewide network that Ritz has developed with teachers as her base. But she was a smart and wily candidate, considerably more knowledgeable than Ritz on key issues, and had the experience of running for governor in the 2004 cycle before Gov. Joe Kernan changed his mind and decided to go for a full term following O’Bannon’s death.
John Gregg is no Evan Bayh, to say the least. More to the point, Gregg is hardly the face of the Indiana Democratic Party’s future, ran awful campaign commercials in 2012, and arguably came close to beating Pence in spite of rather than because of his efforts. He also has a voting record and other issues that Republicans chose to ignore in 2012 because they believed they could win without going negative. On the other hand, Gregg can be a powerful speaker, has deep understanding of state government, and has populist instincts that might make him the right match for this particular election year.
It’s hardly certain, though, that Gregg would win a primary against Ritz. Primary elections start with base. Gregg and Ritz would seem to have similar size statewide bases, though Ritz’s might be larger and is definitely more intense. Gregg’s supporters claim he would be the stronger candidate against Pence. But between the two, Ritz is the only one to have actually won a statewide race. And, Karen Tallian notwithstanding, Ritz has the ability more than Gregg to tap into the progressive mood that seems to be taking hold of the Democratic Party.
But there are serious doubts about whether Ritz is up to a gubernatorial race even among some of her own supporters. There is great sympathy for her because of the way she has been treated by Pence and the Republican leadership. But there are also complaints that she could have handled the situation much better. Add to that the fact she lacks experience in issues besides education, and some fear her campaign could seriously run awry.
That neither Gregg nor Ritz is an ideal candidate leads one to ask if there might be anyone else. By all accounts State Sen. Karen Tallian is a substantive legislator. But the self-proclaimed progressive candidate in the race will likely be blocked from raising “progressive” money so long as she has to contend with Ritz.
Among other names mentioned, Jim Schellinger, a successful architect, would be able to raise enough money to compete for the nomination. But he ran a very poor campaign in 2008 and lost the primary in spite of having almost the entire Democratic establishment behind him. The articulate Ed DeLaney would probably be best able of anyone to put Pence on the defensive and hold Republicans accountable for the mess they have made of the state. But DeLaney is no new face and might have trouble rallying the forces enough to win.
The so-called “primary free-for-all” Hoosier Democrats are facing is happening because there is no true party leader, no heir apparent to the Evan Bayh era. Bart Peterson was the logical candidate to run governor in 2012 until he allowed then political novice Greg Ballard to defeat him for re-election as mayor of Indianapolis in 2007. Now there is no one that Democrats automatically think of as a likely winner, as they do, for example, with Joe Hogsett in the Indianapolis mayoral race.
In the absence of a clear front-runner or a group of party “wise men” to bring everyone together toward a resolution, Democrats will have little choice but to have voters settle it next May in the primary. There are worse things in a democracy than to have the future decided by the people. And, given Pence’s problems, the winner would have a genuine chance to become governor.
Sautter is a Democratic media consultant based in Washington and an Indiana native.