LaPORTE – Just because he didn’t win doesn’t mean John Gregg didn’t get it right. In any other year, his campaign of inclusive, bottom-up populism would have carried the day and kept both our base of white, blue collar voters intact with younger and minority voters to help win Indiana’s governorship. But not this year. The Trump tide cruelly swept away all in its path.
Take a look at the town of Kingsford Heights in LaPorte County that was expertly profiled in a front page piece in Sunday’s South Bend Tribune by veteran writer Virginia Black. The town, consisting of blue collar workers, is a mix of both white and African American voters that has reliably supported Democratic presidential nominees for decades.
The town is a good example of where the Democratic presidential candidate’s message did not resonate with blue collar voters with its happy-talk insistence on “building on gains” of the Obama administration and which thought that focusing obsessively on the many missteps and offensive talk by Donald Trump would somehow carry the day. Folks who are hurting need to feel that Democrats, who’ve traditionally been aligned with blue collar voters, hear them and have a concrete plan to make things better.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks put so well in a recent column, “If you were stuck in a jobless town, watching your friends OD on opiates, scrambling every month to pay the electric bill and then along came a guy who seemed able to fix your problems and hear your voice, maybe you would stomach some ugliness, too.”
Bernie Sanders gave a well-attended talk up in Naperville, Illinois, last Friday night where he vowed to hold Donald Trump to account and to stand against “bigotry and racism” but he acknowledged very clearly that Trump tapped a vein of economic discontent among our base and that Democrats must speak to the “pain and despair” felt by “people all over this country who are working two and three jobs…they are struggling and nobody is paying attention to them.”
I would argue that the results not only in Kingsford Heights but in LaPorte County showed that John Gregg’s campaign was able to accomplish that, but that the weight of overcoming a half million vote disparity statewide between Trump and Clinton was just too much to overcome.
Kingsford Heights saw in John Gregg a candidate who talked about inclusiveness and a bottom-up populism that they liked and they supported his candidacy for governor with a majority vote (despite Clinton losing that community) just as Gregg won LaPorte County by nearly 6,000 votes while Clinton was losing LaPorte County by nearly 3,000 votes. The same statewide where the Trump effect of a half million vote margin swamped the Gregg campaign that had won some 340,000 of those same Trump voters but still came up short.
We all need to consider why the Gregg/Hale campaign was able to swim upstream against those powerful Trump currents as well as it did: John Gregg combined inclusiveness and a seeming attention to minorities and city-dwelling Millennials as well as to small town and rural voters that was powerful and effective. For voters in the four corners of the state who were “fed up” with being ignored by Indianapolis, Gregg’s message of inclusiveness played well there too.
Most tellingly, his campaign got it that it was “the economy stupid” and he campaigned hard on a populist economic message that railed against unfair trade agreements that had hollowed out many Hoosier cities and towns just like Kingsford Heights. Many parts of Indiana are similar to Kingsford Heights where disillusioned and disaffected workers, stung by years of layoffs and plant closures, said they’d had enough and wanted “change.” While Hillary Clinton was saddled with her husband’s support of NAFTA and once called the hated Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” in trade agreements, John Gregg wisely inveighed against unfair trade agreements in his paid TV ads.
He was also willing to take on Wall Street greed and his TV ads that went after Carrier for the company’s decision to leave Indiana for Mexico were highly effective at placing him squarely on the side of Hoosier blue collar workers. Trump’s win in the Indiana primary was largely attributable to going after Carrier and claiming to blue collar workers that they now had a friend who would fight to bring manufacturing jobs back to Indiana. We will soon see whether he’s able or willing to take on many establishment Republicans in his own party on this issue, but John Gregg came across credibly and with purpose on these most critical populist economic messages.
Unlike Trumpism that combined economic populism with a concerted effort to fuel resentments toward those below, John Gregg’s message was inclusive and diverse. He didn’t preach a zero sum game seemingly pitting one group against another but pushed an aspirational message that said we all win if we can pull together and invest in our teachers, police and communities and improve the quality of life for all Hoosiers.
Yes, he came up short. But I’d argue the twin message of inclusiveness and economic populism pushed by the Gregg campaign was a winner and the fact there was a 360,000-vote spread between John Gregg and Hillary Clinton is a good indication that message was effective and helps provide a road map going forward for Indiana Democrats.
Shaw Friedman is former legal counsel for the Indiana Democratic Party and a longtime HPI columnist. He can be contacted at friedman@netnitco.