Russ Stilwell: Indiana Democrats face permanent erosion
Friday, December 05, 2014 8:44 AM
BOONVILLE – What a difference an election makes. Make that the last three Hoosier elections that saw the Republican political straw crush the camel’s back in Southwest Indiana. Democrats got blistered in 2010, disfigured in 2012 and by the time 2014 came about, it really didn’t matter anymore. The show was over.
I have lived in Southwest Indiana all of my life and have been active in every congressional, state and local race in my area for a very long time. Congressional races in our region were won and lost by both parties on a rotating basis for nearly a decade. The “Bloody 8th” Congressional District was a rollercoaster of winners and losers for years. We had five different congressmen from 1972-82.
The districts were drawn by Republicans in the 1970-80’s and by Democrats in the remaining years through 2010. Why the swings and so many changes? Why so solidly Republican today? And why have nearly all the legislative districts changed from solid Democrat to safe Republican?
If you were a Democratic candidate in 1974 you won. Simple as that. It was the Watergate landslide; 1976 was different, but when Ford pardoned Nixon, it helped Democrats. It returned to normal in 1978 and the Reagan sweep in 1980, where Republican U.S. Rep. Joel Deckard prevailed.
1982? Who really won that election? Democrat Frank McCloskey, after a six-month recount, was declared the winner by a four-vote margin by the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress. McCloskey, the former mayor of Bloomington, continued to win until the Republican wave hit in 1994. That’s when Newt Gingrich took his party to the majority. John Hostettler won competitive elections in the Democrat-drawn map until the popular Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth won in 2006 by 20-some points. Again in 2008, Democrats were on the rise with the Obama machine and Democrats prevailed at the congressional, Statehouse and local level.
And then the worst year for Democrats in nearly a century hit Indiana and virtually every other region of the nation in 2010. Heart surgeon Larry Bucshon won the 8th District seat. Republican state legislative and local candidates won. They won with Democrat-drawn maps. And they won big! Change was coming and it was not the change that Obama promised and that so many had hoped for.
In 2008 and through much of 2009, the “hope and change” of the Obama presidency prevailed. But with the partisan Democrat passage of the Affordable Care Act that hope and change became desperateness and all-out disgust. Folks did not like Obama and they didn’t like his policies. Attitudes changed during the second year of the Obama presidency and they were felt at the ballot box in 2010 and beyond. And it was felt from the White House to the courthouse.
The Republicans were united in their message while Democrats ran away from the president and his policies. They didn’t defend his record. The outcome was obvious. The Republicans took over Southern Indiana in such a way that it is not likely to change for decades, or until another national event occurs similar to Watergate.
This top-down disgust with the national Democrats and the President continued through the 2012 and 2014 elections. It was felt at the national, state and local level.
From my perspective, it’s kind of hard to imagine why the voters continued this pattern in 2014. I think that Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, summed it up best: “Democrats did a piss-poor job in messaging from top to bottom.” Instead of defending the President’s record of economic policies that just might have saved our financial and labor markets, Democrats let the Republicans browbeat them on hot button issues.
Any casual observer of politics and policy would know that our economic climate under Obama was immensely better than when he took office. Unemployment down from double digits to 6 percent. Millions of jobs created. The automobile industry went from the brink of disaster to one of unparalleled growth.
Our interest rates and the price of gasoline were at historic lows. The stock market, our 401K’s and our financial markets were at all-time highs. And we had ended two unpopular wars that began under a Republican administration. There was a lot to talk about. But as Rendell so succinctly noted, “we did a piss-poor job” of defending or messaging. We turned our backs to issues worth talking about and let the hot button issues and Obama bashing prevail.
This is one’s person prospective on what has changed reliable Democrat voters to reliable Republican voters in Southern Indiana. And this change will likely continue for a very long time.
For a long time Democrats were elected regularly at the state and local level in most of the Southern Indiana counties. In some counties, it was a rarity to even have one elected Republican. Today, most of these counties have Republican control at the county level and the voters cast their votes for Republican legislative candidates as well. As we say in the south, “How come?”
Because these mostly white, typically conservative voters identify with the Republicans on hot-button issues. And they changed their voting habits to match their conservative beliefs. If you go to a bar, a union hall, other places where politics come up in our Southern Indiana counties, you will find similar general attitudes.
They hate Obama, are likely pro-life, distrust foreigners, don’t believe in welfare, complain about high taxes, despise immigration reform and let you know that the color of Obama’s skin has nothing to do with their observations. Really?
How do you compete against those odds? And these are not just Republicans. They are Democrats (so they say) and they either just don’t vote or vote for the Republicans and those that espouse their values.
When you compound these hot-button points of view with Republican-drawn congressional and legislative maps, you have a recipe of disaster for Democrats. It will be a lengthy wait before they ever rise in the south again. The GOP controls the maps, they have unlimited campaign funds and their message resonates with the southern voters!
Even though Indiana ranks near dead last in income growth, personal income per capita and every imaginable economic statistic that effects middle and lower income households, these households vote against their economic interests for the Republican message. They have embraced hot button and easy-to-understand issues while ignoring the long term negative effects of Republican policies that do not favor working and middle class families. It’s hard to imagine, but it is the fabric of where we live.
These are the households that used to elect Democrats. These are the voters who Democrats won elections with. And now these voters either don’t vote or pull the Republican ticket more often than not.
There were other trends that caused this massive shift from Democrats to Republicans in the south. There have been population shifts to the suburbs from the Evansville and Louisville areas into neighboring counties. These suburban transits have heavily favored the Republican brand. Democrats were competitive during this voter migration, but it was just a matter of time before the sheer numbers rendered these counties and the legislative seats to non-competitive status.
When I was defeated in my reelection bid in 2010, my internal polling three weeks before the election showed that I could be in trouble. My election numbers were great but my reelect was troubling. Nearly 67% of the voters thought I was doing a good job, they trusted me to do the right thing and liked me by similar margins. And my negatives were single digit. In political terms, these were numbers “to die” for. But it didn’t make any difference.
But voters were prepared to not vote for me and that is exactly what they did. It is nearly impossible to change attitudes. Polls don’t take a swim through the river of pent up “feelings.” They deliver raw numbers. The pent-up feelings of the voters prevailed all across the south, and it continues today.
A couple of months after the disastrous 2010 elections, Howey Politics Indiana asked me for my thoughts. I said that it would be nearly impossible for the House R’s to keep 60 seats and that there was not enough political talent in the state to keep them all. I went on to say the river counties (that would be the Ohio River) and Southern Indiana would have several competitive seats and things could get back to normal somewhat quickly. The river counties and southern Indiana had historically been conservative, but somewhat reliably Democrat, at the local and statehouse level.
I went on to inform the Howey Report that, “Southern Indiana is a gun-toting, Bible belt conservative blue collar area that doesn’t think kindly of folks who don’t think like they do; and they will punish you at the ballot box every time from top to bottom.” These voters sure proved this point in 2010-2014 when they linked the entire Democrat ballot with the unpopular president, Obamacare and hot-button issue.
A whole lot has changed since I made those ill-fated comments. What a difference the fragmentation of the Democrat caucus and a decided money advantage can make!
Talk about lack of political insight. Democrats are not going to rise in the south anytime soon. Southern Indiana has changed and looks to stay that way for a very long time.
I have always believed that Democrats cannot control the Indiana House or have quorum breaking numbers in the Senate without the South. It will not happen unless a strategy is designed and put in place, much like former Speaker Michael Phillips did when he took the House from 27 seats to a majority in a little over a decade.
As recently as 2008, House Democrats had a 19-5 Southern Indiana advantage. Today, that relates to a 20-4 Republican advantage. When you add the overwhelming advantages of the Republican maps and ownership of the political money chest it could be decades before parity can ever be achieved.
Today, in many of our Southern Indiana counties a Republican only needs to put a name on the ballot, avoid a primary and win. They only need sign their declaration of candidacy and they are the immediate favorite. It wasn’t that long ago, when this could be said of the Democrats.
Times are changing and hope is dubious. If you are a Southern Indiana Democrat that is not the “hope and change” you envisioned in the Obama election of 2008. Hope and change may be coming, and better days may be coming too. But those days are light years away in the Southern Indiana I call home.
Stilwell is a former Democratic House majority leader and a frequent HPI contributor.