BOONVILLE - Sometimes it’s hard to look at raw numbers and predict a scientific numerical outcome. And if you’re talking about political numbers in an unpredictable political environment, it’s anyone’s guess. Political polling is the science we most often use, but these polling creatures just don’t capture everything that folks on the ground feel in their veins and know in their hearts. Welcome to the world of Hoosier politics and the race for the Indiana House in 2012.
Some pundits are already expounding that a GOP supermajority might be in the making. Others are predicting that House Democrats will transgress from political disaster in 2010 to political catastrophe in November. And others are predicting the calamitous doom of B. Patrick Bauer and his House minority leadership.
Add these predictions together, throw in a dozen House Democrat retirements coupled with a Republican gerrymandered political map that has a current 60-40 GOP advantage, and it’s easy to forecast such doom. But there’s something that’s just not right in the air, not resonating on the ground, and just isn’t predictable this year.
Make no mistake about it. Indiana is a Republican state and statewide voter history is proof when we look at races where most folks don’t know the candidates and mostly vote the party line. Races like state treasurer and state auditor fit the category.
House Democrats found it challenging to win with good maps and it will be far more challenging with the gerrymandered GOP maps.
Let’s look at the challenges and opportunities for 2012 in the race for the House. My crystal ball isn’t in full radar mode just yet, but mark my words that there will be surprises for those who predict House Democrats will be on the short side of 35 seats in 2012.
Sometimes there is a national wave or sentiment that carries all the way to our state legislative seats. Just look at 2010. If you had an R beside your name, you automatically picked up nearly 10 percentage points. We all know why. Folks were mad and they were angry with President Obama and the newly passed health care reform. They were questioning the economy and jobless numbers. They pulled the elephant tail and voted for a different kind of “change.”
Little did they know that this pulling of the tail would set off a barrage of change that would spark a fire that would grow into an inferno. This fire would alienate hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers like never before. Did I mention labor union members? Teachers? The poor and underprivileged? Women?
I’m referring not only to some of the more egregious and controversial Indiana legislative issues, but also those far right issues being tossed about by those who covet the Republican nomination for president.
They are pandering to the base and the right of the political electorate. That leaves the middle, women and the conventional left up for grabs. And this is how Democrats have always won in the Hoosier state, both statewide and in legislative districts!
Despite the GOP gerrymandering the maps, it would appear to the most strident political animal that there could be enough seats in play before this election season is over to cause the Rs more than just a little after-dinner heartburn.
John Gregg will be the strongest Democrat candidate for governor since Evan Bayh. Remember in 1996 when the underdog, then Lt. Governor Frank O’Bannon, coasted to a 52-47% victory over Steve Goldsmith, the GOP “anointed one” who was favored to win?
Hoosiers still like governors who steer their political vehicles down the middle of the road, like the Gregg campaign. Folks who drive off the road on the far right don’t fare too well. And the Pence campaign needs a four-wheel-drive to keep its machine operational in that off-road, far-right lane.
This statewide campaign will have coattails for House Ds in competitive seats. Did I say Southern Indiana?
Why did Hoosiers vote for “change” and pull the elephant tail in 2010? Did the GOP have better candidates and issues? No, they had a national wave that provided a 10-point advantage.
In one Southern Indiana district the incumbent Democrat had polling numbers of 66% positive name recognition, 66% positive job performance, and single digit negatives only three weeks before the election. Those are numbers that most incumbents would be proud of and almost always win with.
But the reelect number was under 50%. The voters were prepared to not vote for a Democrat. This happened all over Southern Indiana and the issues were not local and state issues, they were federal issues. This incumbent lost, as did virtually all of the Democrat incumbents in this region. All had similar numbers. The Rs had unprecedentedly built in numbers from a national political tsunami.
Sometimes all the time and money we place in our political operations just cannot be overcome when a national wave occurs. Look at 1974 and the Watergate elections. How about 1994 and the Gingrich “Congressional Revolution”? If the national debate on the far right, commonly referred to as the Republican primary season, continues - a gentle wave could be emerging that just might grow into a cyclone of political consequences reminiscent of 2010 in reverse.
Unlike in 2008 when Obama and Clinton were campaigning for the middle and Reagan Democrats, the 2012 national GOP contenders are pandering to the far right with a look that would strain the neck of any casual observer.
There is one segment of our Hoosier population that is hopping mad and they can’t wait to draw some political blood in the 2012 elections. Hoosier labor union members normally have a far greater registration number than the average Hoosier voter. And they normally vote in far greater percentage than the general population. They don’t call it “organized labor” for nothing.
Even though the labor density of our state is only about 10-12% (20-25 if you count the spouses), their voting percentage is far greater than their numbers indicate. In a normal year labor union members and their spouses would be a third of the electorate.
And they would split their votes nearly 2-1 for the Democrat vs. the GOP candidate. f you add in the teachers, you have a pool of nearly 400,000 voters, or double that counting spouses. That’s a lot of political power!
In a normal year (whatever that is) you would find nearly two-thirds of these voters casting ballots, a far greater percentage than the general population. But 2012 is not a normal year.
Teachers and union members are incensed with the antics of the GOP-dominated legislature and their Right to Work and anti-teacher agenda. In my 40 years in the labor movement, I have never before seen as much excitement, passion and a “ready to get even” mood.
I predict that 2012 will be an extraordinary year for this group of activists. Their voting percentage will dramatically increase and the percentage for the GOP will fall off considerably. It’s not unlikely that there will be a voting percentage upward of 80 with a nearly identical percentage voting for the Democrat candidate. In some cases they will just be voting against the GOP candidate because of their divisive positions.
Do the math. This translates into raw political power; political power that is passionate, energized and ready to take back their state. And if you add up the numbers, it could be upwards of 50% of the electorate, counting spouses.
And let’s not forget about the “love to hate him and hate to love him” Democrat leader that some folks just love to demonize. Pat Bauer may be many things to different people, but he is a workaholic who loves to win.
There is no one who works harder to raise dollars for his caucus. There is no one who is more loyal to his caucus members when an election is on the line. If in doubt, just ask countless numbers of existing and former House members who relied on the monies that Bauer relentlessly raised each cycle.
House Democrats lost in 2010 because the Republicans nationalized the campaign, not because of a lack of effort or some screw-up by Bauer or the campaign team. There were nearly one million personal contacts at doors and on phones for the House candidates. I’m confident that this program will only be accelerated in 2012. And you can bet that organized labor will be in full organized campaign mode too.
Yes, we all know that at the end of the day it takes good solid candidates, good issues and a respectful campaign budget to win elections. It also takes a little good fortune. For all the good fortune that the GOP had in 2010, it appears to this writer that those riches might well be a thing of the past in 2012.
Stilwell is the former House Democratic majority leader.