Maureen Hayden: Buoyed by Gregg, Dems seek to cut super majorities
Saturday, November 05, 2016 4:11 PM
INDIANAPOLIS – Democrats buoyed by the prospect of retaking the governor’s office have their eyes on another prize at the Statehouse - breaking the Republicans’ super-majority hold on the General Assembly.
On Tuesday, Democrats must flip five of 71 House seats now held by Republicans to crack the GOP’s two-thirds holds of the 100-member House. There is little chance of denting Republicans’ 40 to 10 super-majority in the Senate.
Breaking the super-majority is significant. With two-thirds of the seats or more, Republicans have the quorum necessary to conduct business in both chambers, and pass any law, without a single Democrat even showing up.
Republicans who’ve had the super-majority since 2012 take the threat to their coalition seriously, especially with recent polls showing Democrat John Gregg ahead of Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb in the governor’s race, though the WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana Poll on Friday shows the race a dead heat at 42%.
As of mid-week, the state Republican House Campaign Committee had spent more than $1.4 million on a handful of key races – five times what the less-resourced House Democratic Caucus Committee had spent.
In the last two weeks, Republicans have poured $125,000 into the race for an open seat in District 26. Their support for Republican Sally Siegrist is more than Democrat Vickie Woeste has spent on her whole campaign.
The GOP is also pushing significant money into a Terre Haute seat held by Rep. Alan Morrison, who’s being challenged by former state Sen. Tim Skinner, a labor stalwart with added support from the teachers’ unions.
Some GOP incumbents may be in peril. Since mid-October, the party has funneled more than $350,000 to Rep. Ed Soliday, the powerful chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee, in his race against Democratic challenger Pamela Fish.
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said Democrats feel good about their chances of breaking the super-majority on that side of the building.
“The best indicator of that is the Republican caucus is unleashing gobs of money in defense of some of their incumbents and on some of their seats that they currently hold in open races,” he said. “And we’re answering that with an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort.”
Democratic leaders recruited candidates around the state to run on a theme of Republican overreach in the Statehouse. They’ve citing a rash of controversial bills – such as the disputed religious freedom law and restrictive abortion measures -- advanced by Republicans whose numbers rendered the minority party almost irrelevant.
“They’ve made it very easy for those of us who are trying to break into the ranks,” said Woeste, who is competing for an open seat held by the GOP for 16 years. “They can’t share the sandbox. That’s the danger of unlimited power.”
All of the energy being expended by Democrats is just to shed the label of being a super-minority, however. There’s no chance of reclaiming the majority they held in the House prior to the 2010 election.
In all, 125 legislative seats are up for a vote Tuesday - all of the House and half the Senate. Only about a dozen are considered in play, and only about half of those are seen as truly winnable by Democratic insiders.
Andy Downs, head of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, said the partisan leverage of being able to stall the legislative process by walking out is significant, but it can only be pulled “when you are not in the super-minority.”
Pelath said that’s critical.
“We can’t have an effective legislature without any checks or balances,” he said.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, who helps decide where dollars go in House races, said it was never the intention of Republicans to gain super-majority control of the Legislature. And he denies they’ve abused it.
“A super-majority is difficult to manage,” he said. “It’s difficult to reduce expectations of the ability to overreach - and to just run over the minority - which we have not done in a supermajority.”
Bosma rejects the theory pushed by Democrats that the Republican-controlled redistricting process of 2011 carved out districts to favor his party.
“Indiana is, after all, a Republican state,” he noted.
Instead, he said the super-majority control of the House, won by the GOP during the 2012 election, came as a result of Democrats’ ill use of the leverage they’re now hoping to regain.
In 2011, a year before falling into super-minority status, House Democrats staged a six-week walkout, fleeing to Illinois to block about a dozen bills seen as anti-labor.
The Republican gains that followed, said Bosma, were the result of a “Hoosier backlash at that tactic.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at email@example.com