HPI Analysis: A Southern Indiana Realignment
Wednesday, December 22, 2010 6:28 AM
This article was originally published in the Dec. 2, 2010 edition of Howey Politics Indiana.
By BRIAN A. HOWEY
FRANKLIN – Until the very end, B. Patrick Bauer and the Indiana House Democratic brain trust thought they were looking at holding on to a 51-seat majority instead of a potentially transformational election.
This, despite Howey Politics Indiana’s Nov. 1 forecast that the House would go Republican in the 54 to 62 seat range (it ended up at 60 seats). The caucus truly believed it could pick off Republican State Rep. Dick Dodge and hold on to the seats of State Reps. Joe Pearson, Russ Stilwell and the open seats being vacated by State Reps. Vern Tincher and Dennis Avery.
“Our caucus did believe until the end that we might be able to hold on to 51 seats,” said then Majority Leader Stilwell. “The real difference was that the Hoosier Political Tsunami hit us much higher in the chest than we anticipated. When I saw your national congressional generics favoring the GOP in the 10-15 percent range on the morning of the election, I had a sinking feeling, not only about my race but my caucus as a whole. The numbers were right on and it was intensified in the Ohio and Wabash valley.”
When overlaying the Indiana House, Indiana Senate and Congressional maps, there is little doubt that the work of the voters on Nov. 2 could be as profound as the period after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 put in motion the transformation of the Deep South from a bastion of conservative Democrats to the “New South” of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.
The party saw a dramatic erosion of “Reagan Democrat” voters, particularly in Southern Indiana. Two parts of the three-legged stool that allowed President Obama to carry the state – white females and young people – were down dramatically (though African-Americans turnout was high). The white female vote declined from 47 to 40 percent, the youth vote from 19 to 11 percent. For the first time in a decade, conservatives outnumbered moderates from 44 to 36 percent in 2008 to 43-40 percent in 2010.
Mike Gentry of the House Republican Campaign Committee did early polling in HD70 and 73 and saw generic ballot numbers favoring Republicans 17 percent in Paul Robertson’s seat and 13 percent in the Oxley seat.
“We’re seeing a trend not only in Southern Indiana, but in Southern legislatures as well,” Gentry said of what he calls “heritage Democratic” voters. “Republicans won in Alabama. They hold all Southern legislatures except for Arkansas and Mississippi. The conservative southern Democrats have pretty much decided they no longer stand with the national Democrats - the East Coast, Chicago, Left Coast party of Obama, Pelosi and Reid. It became pretty apparent they couldn’t identify with that party and that’s happening in Indiana, particularly Southern Indiana.”
HRCC decided to back Harrison County Councilwoman Rhonda Rhoads in the primary because she matched up best with Robertson. “We did early Louisville TV in primary,” Gentry said. “We had her up by 15 percent on Paul Robertson in May. We saw what Louisville TV did for Rhonda and we decided to do that for Steve (Davisson). We think that by doing early TV, it allowed us to get a lead there, keep it and then expand the field into other areas.”
The Republican State Committee and Gov. Daniels’ Aiming Higher PAC assumed field work in the Indianapolis and Evansville TV markets. HRCC had the “fishhook” that started with defending State Reps. Don Lehe and Randy Truitt up north, took in the Sharon Negele challenge to State Rep. Dale Grubb and the open Vern Tincher seat in Western Indiana, then jutting east into the seats that Davisson, Rhoads and Matt Ubelhor won, then spiking north with the Bob Bischoff seat.
When Democrats, attempting to defend State Rep. Bob Bischoff, unleashed the direct mail pieces charging Republican challenger Jud McMillin with prosecutorial malfeasance and HRCC polling showed him trailing by only 1 percent 10 days out, “That was our first indication that this was going to be a really good cycle,” Gentry said.
HRCC also saw Negele cut Grubb’s lead from 30 to 7 percent, and challenges to State Reps. Kreg Battles and Clyde Kersey in the Wabash valley tighten. “If we had had three more days, we might have gotten to 62 seats,” Gentry said.
Undecideds broke emphatically for Republicans such as Wendy McNamara in the open HD76 seat vacated by State Rep. Trent Van Haaften and defended by State Sen. Bob Deig.
Another factor was Bauer switched his polling and political consulting team that carried Democrats to majorities in 2006 and 2008 from Fred Yang of Garin, Hart Yang Research to Hamilton Campaigns’ Dave Beattie. Multiple Democratic House Sources tell HPI that much of the polling data this cycle was off kilter.
House Democrats never had a coherent message (quick, think, what was their campaign theme?) Auto belt Democrats like Ron Herrell and Joe Pearson didn’t talk about how the Obama auto restructuring saved scores of jobs in Kokomo and Marion in their paid ad campaigns. Both lost. The very plant where President Obama and Vice President Biden appeared in Kokomo last week was the scene of a plant gate flesh presser by U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly on Sunday, Oct. 31. Donnelly heard a number of workers thank him for helping save Chrysler and their plant, but they were going to vote Republican anyway because they were pissed.
“It’s hard to win elections when people act irrationally,” Chairman Dan Parker observed.
Evansville area Democrats barely mentioned the problematic FSSA privatization, where the story was first fleshed out, and lost three House seats and an Indiana Senate seat there. Gentry said that GOP polling showed Gov. Daniels’ favorables very high in the Evansville market.
Instead, Bauer opted from a patchwork series of negative campaign porn that was subsequently devoured by Republican straight party voting that consumed reelection campaigns of Reps. Bischoff and Robertson and flipped the open Oxley and Avery seats.
A Democratic nightmare?
How bad is it for Indiana Democrats?
The party is in danger of becoming an urban-based group.
In 2008, Indiana House districts represented by Democrats touched all or parts of 57 counties. The 2010 election reduced that to 37 counties.
Democrats were the sole representatives in the Indiana House for 17 counties in 2008: Monroe, Gibson, Clay, Jennings, Harrison, Washington, Perry, Jefferson, Starke, Fountain, Vermillion, Posey, Orange, Blackford, Crawford, Switzerland and Ohio. Now, that holds true for only Jennings, Jefferson, Starke, Fountain and Vermillion.
Democrats represented 10 counties exclusively in 2008 that are now represented exclusively by Republicans: Harrison, Washington, Perry, Blackford, Crawford, Ohio, Orange, Posey, Putnam and Switzerland. In three of those counties - Harrison, Perry and Washington – two seats flipped from Democrat to Republican.
Counties with Republican baselines between 33.96 percent and 44.83 percent now account for a 2009 population of 663,882 and 10.34 House seats. Counties with GOP baselines between 45.37 percent and 49.55 percent with 1.635 million people account for 25.47 House seats. Combined, that represents 36 House seats.
Of those 36 seats, the seven most Democratic counties – Marion, Lake, St. Joseph, Porter, Monroe, LaPorte and Vigo – account for 33.7 House seats. Of the remaining Democratic baseline counties – Scott, Starke, Sullivan, Perry, Vermillion, Pike, Crawford and Switzerland – only Switzerland and Scott gained population between 2000 and 2009.
GOP baseline vote counties between 50.21 percent and 54.96 percent account for 11.58 seats; between 55.21 and 59.64 percent now at 13.31 seats; and from 60.62 percent to 74.88 percent, 39.30 seats for a total of 64 seats.
Stilwell, who lost to Republican Susan Ellspermann by an surprising 10 percent, called it the biggest tsunami since the post-Watergate wave pummeled Republicans in 1974. “We knew the wave was going to come to shore, but the magnitude of the wave, particularly in Southern Indiana, wiped out nearly every candidate with a Democrat all the way down to the local level,” Stilwell said. “My race in House District 74 was clearly a competitive race from the beginning. It did belong in the tossup column about three weeks out. There are several reasons. My district, according to our consultants, was a 51.7 percent Democrat district; I had an incredibly good candidate with a great volunteer base and ground game with competitive financing; and even though voters liked me and thought my job performance was good, they were not voting for me.”
Stilwell said his pollster told him three weeks out, “Russ, the voters like you, think you are doing a good job, but they are willing to vote against you.”
“This makes winning very difficult,” Stilwell said.
The last time a Republican “held my seat was decades ago,” Stilwell said of 1994 when Sally Rideout Lambert upset then House Speaker Michael K. Phillips. Stilwell reclaimed the seat two years later for the Democrats. “The same can be said for many of the other seats we lost in Southern Indiana as well.” That would include Bischoff, Robertson, the Oxleys, Trent Van Haaften, Sandra Blanton and Dennis Avery. Republicans haven’t held the Oxley and Robertson seats since the 1970s and ‘80s, former House Speaker John Gregg said.
“To paraphrase what I told you many years ago, 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 the top to the bottom,” Stilwell said.
From urban to rural washouts
Whereas the Republican wave of 1994 washed out urban Democrats in Muncie, Terre Haute, Kokomo, Indianapolis and Marion, the party was able to regain most of those seats over the next two election cycles, but this wave claimed rural and small town Democrats.
Parker observed, “If you do an overlay of the 2008 presidential primary maps, in the districts where Hillary Clinton won, we got slaughtered. While the African-Americans showed up, the young people and white women didn’t. When you have an electorate which is more male, older and you’re losing 15 percent of white Democrats, that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Clearly Republicans were able to play in more districts. They threw early TV ads and 20 direct mail pieces at Grubb and Attica Clerk-Treasurer Sharon Negele lost by just under 500 votes in a race that moved into the HPI tossup zone only in the 11th hour.
“It has decimated the southern conservative Democrats,” said Gregg, whose old HD45 seat has shifted to the GOP column since he retired. “When you see the likes of (Rep. Kreg) Battles and (Clyde) Kersey almost get beat it was just a bad year. But I don’t see any of these seats with excellent recruiting that we can’t get back. We’ll be back, if not in 2012, then 2014. Maps are only good for two election cycles.”
Southern Indiana used to be reliably Democrat at the legislative level, but cracks began appearing in the party’s façade in 2000 and 2004 as President George W. Bush began carrying many of the Ohio and Wabash river counties that had traditionally gone Democratic. Gov. Mitch Daniels was able to cut into the party’s gubernatorial bulwark in 2004 and again in 2008. Throughout the loosening of the Democratic base, the Bischoffs, Robertsons, Averys and Stilwells were reliable election day bets. Only the Bischoff seat entered the HPI Horse Race tossup zone in 2008 and that was due to an influx of Cincinnati Republicans who have been migrating into Dearborn, Ohio and Switzerland counties.
In the Evansville area, Republicans took advantage not only of the wave in counties beginning to trend Republican at the local level, but their candidates worked hard. McNamara knocked on more than 12,000 doors; Ron Bacon on 10,000. Up in Kokomo, Mike Karickhoff knocked on 9,000 doors and made 4,000 phone calls. In Blackford and Grant counties, Kevin Mahan hit 6,000 doors.
That same dynamic is occurring in the Louisville market, where Republicans are making gains at both the legislative and county levels in Clark and Harrison counties. Ditto for Posey County.
Century of Dem county rule ending
For more than a century, Clark County never elected Republicans at the county level. On Nov. 2, the GOP won the Clark County auditor, treasurer and recorder, three county council seats, four township trustee seats and saw Republican Ron Grooms win SD46, Jim Smith upset State Sen. Jim Lewis in SD45, Rhonda Rhoads win in HD70, Ed Clere won reelection in HD72 in a seat that flipped to the GOP in 2008 after State Rep. Bill Cochran held it for decades, and Steve Davisson in HD73.
In Posey County, Republicans swept all but two county offices. “It has not been a Republican county,” said McNamara, who won Van Haaften’s HD76 seat by eight votes. “Now we’ve got the clerk and assessor and all of those are Republican. Posey County has seen a lot of bipartisanship and I think that will continue under new leadership there.”
In Warrick County, Democrats hold only two county offices. “When I first started running it was totally Democrat,” said Rep. Bacon, the county coroner who won the open HD75 seat vacated by Rep. Avery that had been in Democratic hands for more than 36 years. In the Boonville area of Warrick, HD74 State Rep. Susan Ellspermann won 43 percent of the vote there on her way to upsetting Stilwell. Normally a Republican would have carried only 30 percent of the vote in northern Warrick.
In Vanderburgh County, Republican Nick Hermann won the prosecutor’s office from 20-year Democrat Stan Levco and Republican Cheryl Musgrave came within 168 votes in upsetting State Rep. Gail Riecken.
Bacon and Mahan were told by HRCC that polling showed them behind. Neither believed it. Mahan knew that Democrats were demoralized and could feel it. “I felt better about this election than when I ran for sheriff of Blackford County,” he said.
Bacon was also seeing something on the ground the pollsters were missing. “We needed to cut his (Democrat Mike Goebel’s) Vanderburgh total in half,” Bacon said. “We cut it to 800. What really pulled it over was Gibson County. My wife’s family is from Haubstadt and they delivered. That’s what pulled us over. What I was looking at in their polling and what we knew, well, we felt they were not getting the right people.”
Certainly Democrats can be competitive in Clark County legislative races, but the days of those being reliably Democratic are over.
Eric Holcomb, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Daniels and his 2008 reelection campaign manager, observed, “The straight Republican Party ticket voting is a warning that more of the same will yield more of the same.”
House Democrats were confronted with an unprecedented array of power aimed against them. There was HRCC, the Republican State Committee and the governor’s Aiming Higher PAC and the Fred Klipsch/Luke Messer PAC. Aiming Higher, with ads that had the governor’s style accents, determined where the homestretch TV went.
Aiming Higher was able to pump in $898,000 in post-report supplemental money, Hoosiers for Economic Growth did $386,000 and Indiana Republicans $172,000.
Republicans also caught some breaks. Gentry was amazed that State Rep. Don Lehe’s opponent - Democrat Timothy Downs - disappeared. Lehe had been involved in close races this decade and was one of three Republicans (Reps. Dick Dodge and Ed Clere were the others) the party thought it would have to defend. Lehe won 12,662 to 5,577.
Democrats never responded to the early TV on behalf of Davisson in HD73. The closest call came in HD51 where Democrat Codie Ross closed a 30-point gap to 7 percent. HRCC responded with a TV ad featuring YouTube video of Ross supporting Cap-and-Trade legislation, then finished with a positive TV ad for Dodge, who won by more than 2,500 votes.
House Democrats responded with $967,000 and the Indiana Democratic Party - which used the late $500,000 from Sen. Bayh’s war chest all on House races - put in $346,000. But without a coherent message, wobbly polling and a GOP wave, the result was a disaster.
Gentry said that Republicans were initially spooked by the Hamilton Campaigns polling firm, which had a name similar to a Virginia-based Republican firm. “But their push calls were so-over-the-top negative,” Gentry said. “It was really old school Democratic and it shook us up for a few days. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Can Dems make a comeback?
Gregg said it is imperative for Democrats to begin recruiting new faces just as House Republicans, Gov. Daniels, and the Indiana Chamber did, beginning right after the 2008 elections. By November 2009, the GOP had recruited the bulk of the 2010 class that delivered 60 seats. McNamara, for instance, said she decided to run “right after the 2008 election.”
Indiana Democrats did that in 1994 after winning only 44 seats when Gregg, along with Reps. Susan Crosby, Craig Fry and Mark Kruzan, went on a recruiting blitz, producing candidates like Stilwell who reclaimed the seat two years later. By 1996, the party had regained control of the House, helped not only by good candidates, but by Gov. Evan Bayh’s successful handover of his office to Gov. Frank O’Bannon, who upset Republican Steve Goldsmith. “They need people who are fiscally conservative,” Gregg said. “They need to be moderates on the social issues. They need to be conservative on fiscal issues.”
“Mark my word, the Republicans in the legislature will overplay their hand,” Gregg said, hoping for a repeat of 1995 when House Republicans tried to change prevailing wage and fair share laws. Those issues were instrumental in Gregg becoming the 85th Indiana House speaker two years later. “They know enough not to do prevailing wage, but they will overreach on a social issue that will turn it back,” Gregg said. “They cannot keep from meddling in social issues.”
State Sen. Jim Tomes, who won the open Bob Deig seat by 991 votes, believes Republicans can hold seats, even “terribly gerrymandered seats” like his own. “I’m convinced that if the Republicans do in this cycle what we said we’d do, what the people put them up here to do, they will hold that seat even if it stayed the way it is now. They’ll maintain it. My district is three to one Democratic. There was one precinct that was 6 to 1 Democratic and I got 45 percent of the vote in that precinct.”
Tomes won by talking about Right to Life issues and other volatile topics like immigration reform. “National Democrats brought a lot of heat on themselves and it flowed over to these state and local races as well. I never had anybody who had a problem with my position on immigration. My opponent didn’t want to touch it,” Tomes said. “Those issues, like the life issue, I was amazed how many young men came to the door, looked for that and said, ‘That’s what I was looking for. Sanctity of life.’”
2012 cross currents
There are many cross-currents in play that could impact the 2012 Battle for the House. A gubernatorial candidacy by U.S. Rep. Mike Pence would almost certainly be based in large part on social issues. Pence drew large crowds during a late October campaign swing through Democratic bastions of Corydon, Paoli and Seymour.
There is no way to judge the impact of President Obama, who might have saved Indiana’s share of the domestic auto industry. Gregg said that Obama and Indiana Democrats failed to “define” the 2010 race. “Obama didn’t communicate and the other side defined it,” Gregg said.
Republicans could find either Pence or Gov. Daniels at the top of the 2012 ticket as the GOP presidential nominee. The ticket could be adversely impacted if a Tea Party rebellion removes one of the most successful voter getters in Hoosier history – Sen. Dick Lugar.
Democrats could have their warhorse – Evan Bayh – on the top of the ticket, where he could have a significant impact, particularly in the Ohio and Wabash river valleys where Bayh and his father, former Sen. Birch Bayh, always ran strong. The party may have come full circle from Bayh’s entry in 1986. It was dispirited and with profound minorities in the Statehouse then and has returned to that station today.
The once deep bench is thin now that its most innovative personalities – Gregg, Bart Peterson, Graham Richard – have moved on with their non-political lives. “Only time will tell how profound Sen. Bayh’s abrupt departure will be,” Holcomb observed. “There was a cascading impact from the U.S. Senate, to the State Senate, from Congress to the Indiana House that was enormous.”
If not Bayh, it could be Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel or southern Indiana U.S. Reps. Baron Hill or Brad Ellsworth, who could have a significant impact on the cluster of Evansville area seats the GOP claimed last month.
Parker, who headed to Washington Wednesday to talk about the Indiana landscape with Sen. Bayh, will stay at the helm long enough to help the party launch its mayoral campaigns. While he said that the Indianapolis mayoral race is “pivotal” in setting the tone for 2012, what the party must have is a well-funded gubernatorial campaign with clarion issues. He noted that in 2008, “Obama ran as a Hoosier Democrat. He talked about a balanced budget and cutting taxes. In 2010, the middle of Indiana voted against the Democratic Party.”
“Democrats need to realize that if they are going to run and win statewide, they have to have candidates that appeal to Southern Indiana,” Gregg said.
Gentry is optimistic that the GOP can hold on to its gains, particularly with new “fair” maps. “I think our chances will be pretty good,” said Gentry, who will stay on with House Republicans at least through the end of the Indiana General Assembly.
“There are going to be fair districts in the redistricting,” Gentry added. “I do think there has been a change in people’s identity of which party they identify with. It will probably be Obama at the top of the ticket. I think the prospects are really good. We’ve got very strong candidates.”