INDIANAPOLIS – State Democrats were hoping to celebrate a string of election victories at their annual holiday party here in the state capital. Instead the early December event will likely have a more somber tone as party leaders dissect what went wrong on Election Day.
Democrats lost every statewide contest last Tuesday, including what were seen as competitive races for Senate and governor. Despite money and labor poured into a handful of legislative seats, the party failed to unlock the Republican super majority in the General Assembly, or make a dent in Republicans’ hold on seven of nine congressional seats.
State Democratic Chairman John Zody blames the across-the-board losses on a tidal wave created by GOP President-elect Donald Trump. Late polls projected Trump to win the state by 6 to 10 points. Instead, he and his vice presidential candidate, Gov. Mike Pence, won by 19 points, more than 500,000 votes more than his losing opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton. “That’s tough to overcome,” said Zody, who seemed as surprised as anyone by Trump’s strong pull on the down-ballot races.
Zody said he’s taking advantage of upcoming gatherings of party activists to find out why their candidates took such a pounding. “I’ve got a list started already of people I need to talk to and places I need to go,” he said. Zody, with another year to go in his four-year elected term as party chairman, faces a daunting task analyzing what happened and deciding what comes next.
Going into Tuesday’s election, party leaders were convinced their incumbent state schools chief, Glenda Ritz, would be joined in the Statehouse by gubernatorial contender John Gregg, whose internal polls showed him narrowly ahead of Republican Eric Holcomb. Instead both Ritz and Gregg lost. She was defeated by Jennifer McCormick, now superintendent of Yorktown Community Schools.
“We can be sad. I certainly was,” said Sen. Tim Lanane, of Anderson, one of nine Democrats who will be left in the 50-member chamber. “But there will be another election, and we’ve got to be thinking now really in terms of how to prepare for that.”
With no statewide offices up for election for two years, Lanane said party leaders have time to address hard questions. “We need to analyze our base,” he said. “Did they get out to vote? And if they didn’t, why didn’t they respond to our message?”
In the traditionally Democratic stronghold of Lake County, for example, African-Americans dominate the voter rolls in the cities, but turned out at a lower rate than white voters in the suburbs. Clinton won 41,000 more votes there than Trump. But back in 2008, President Barack Obama won that county by more than 100,000 votes. “We’ve got to take a hard look at ourselves,” Lanane said.
Democratic leaders around the state echoed his point.
A year ago, Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight helped usher in historic results for Democrats in his community, becoming the first Democrat to win the mayor’s office for the third time. All six contested common council races were won by Democrats, as well.
Goodnight said he knows people who voted for him last year but voted Republican this year. For him, the most surprising were autoworkers who helped Republican Todd Young defeat Democrat Evan Bayh in the U.S. Senate race. Young opposed a 2009 auto industry bailout that Bayh supported. “Sometimes people don’t vote in their own best interest,” Goodnight said.
There are no easy answers for Democrats, who’ve been out of power in the Statehouse for 16 years, he added. Goodnight said the party will have to convince voters it can do things better, a tactic that Gregg tried to employ in the governor’s race but failed. “We have to produce good policy and hope it resonates as good politics,” he said.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a rising star in the state party, agrees. Last November, the 35-year-old mayor won reelection with 80 percent of the vote, after spending much of his first term focused on boosting his city’s shifting economy. Buttigieg said Democrats need to focus on fixing fundamental problems in the economy and the political system that leave too many people feeling left out. “That’s what the winning campaigns in this election tapped into,” he said. “But, at the same time, we can’t make false promises.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at