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Monday, October 22, 2018
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  • WASHINGTON – Conor Lamb’s stunning upset in last week’s special election in a deep red western Pennsylvania congressional district is triggering a frenzy of speculation and activity in Washington. Democrats are convinced the victory signals the coming of a “blue wave” that will carry their party to a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and possibly even in the U.S. Senate.  Republicans, meanwhile, are characterizing their Pennsylvania embarrassment as a wake-up call. GOP lawmakers are scrambling to deliver legislative results in hopes of stemming a blue tide. Most independent political prognosticators, however, believe current objective factors already point to big Democratic gains in 2018. Stuart Rothenberg writes this week in Roll Call that Republican and Democratic strategists agree a blue wave has already formed and that most expect the GOP losses in the House to be in 30-45 seat range, well above the two dozen seats needed for majority control.   For Hoosier Democrats, a wave would present an opportunity similar to the 1980s and in 2006 when they were able to win several congressional seats in districts drawn to protect Republican incumbents.
  • WASHINGTON – Momentum in politics is fleeting.  A candidate can be riding a wave of momentum only to have it vanish with a quick turn of events.  During his 1980 quest for the Republican presidential nomination, George H. W. Bush claimed to have grasped “the Big Mo” after he won a surprising victory in the Iowa caucus.  But Bush’s momentum evaporated days later when Ronald Reagan defeated him by a wide margin in the New Hampshire primary. Following a year of finger pointing and handwringing, Democrats have regained their optimism and captured the political momentum leading into next year’s midterm elections.  In last week’s off-year elections, they scored big in state and local races, flipping executive offices and legislative seats across the country.  Democrats won offices in New York and Pennsylvania that had been held by Republicans for over a hundred years.  In Virginia, energized Democrats and moderate swing voters — mostly suburban  — turned out in droves to repudiate Donald Trump.  Exit polls found 57% of voters disapprove of Trump’s job performance — and that 87% of those dissatisfied voters backed the Democrat.  Forty-seven percent strongly disapprove of Trump with 95% voting Democratic.

  • WASHINGTON – When Democrat Jill Long won an upset special election victory for Dan Quayle’s old House seat in the heavily Republican Fort Wayne area congressional district back in 1989, Lee Atwater, who was the newly installed chairman of the Republican National Committee, told the New York Times he was ashamed his party lost.  “She ran the kind of campaign I would have been proud of,” Atwater, the king of hardball politics, lamented. Atwater, who was fresh from masterminding George H.W. Bush’s presidential victory in 1988, could afford to shoulder the blame.  Much has changed in the world of congressional campaigns in the almost 30 years since that Indiana race. But there is still a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing after an election loss in a high profile race, as in the June 20 Georgia 6 special election. Party leaders should be apologetic when they lose a special election in a district drawn for their own candidates. Partisan make-up of a congressional district weighs heavily on the outcome. Republicans usually win special elections in Republican districts and Democrats usually win in Democratic districts.
  • WASHINGTON – It is said that no politician travels to Iowa to give a speech unless they plan to run for president. So the announcement this week that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is scheduled to be a headline speaker at a Des Moines political event in September begs the question: What is Pete up to? He will be speaking along with Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who is by all accounts mulling a presidential run. Undoubtedly, Buttigieg is a rising star in the Democratic Party. He earned rave reviews for his recent dark horse campaign for Democratic National Committee Chair.  Though he didn’t win sufficient commitments from the delegates to seriously compete for the post, his message of reforming the party by going outside-the-Beltway resonated. Nearly all of the former DNC Chairs, including Howard Dean and Ed Rendell, endorsed him. He clearly elevated his national stature, one that was already climbing. The Democratic Party is in desperate need of the kind of change that Buttigieg advocates and offers. The party’s 2016 presidential candidate lost to possibly the least prepared candidate in American history. Republicans control both Houses of Congress and two-thirds of the governor’s offices. Republicans have veto proof majority’s in nearly half of the state legislatures in the county. As Bernie Sanders points out in an opinion editorial this week in The New York Times, “If these results are not a clear manifestation of a failed political strategy, I don’t know what is.”
  • WASHINGTON – The 2018 midterm elections are still a year and a half away, but Republicans in Washington are beginning to panic about their prospects. With questions about Russian interference and possible collusion connected to the 2016 Trump campaign on the rise, and the president’s approval ratings sinking, some political forecasters predict a big Democratic year. President Trump’s Russia imbroglio alone might be enough to deliver Democrats big gains. The almost mind-blowing cascade of revelations has some rattled Republicans already distancing themselves from the new president. The president’s firing of FBI Director James Coming opened a floodgate of administration leaks that threaten to overwhelm his presidency. The naming of special prosecutor Robert Mueller to oversee the Russia probe may portent its eventual unraveling.
  • WASHINGTON – The first time I stepped into one of Bob Pastrick’s campaign headquarters in March 1995, I knew this was a scene out of a movie waiting to be made.  Behind a desk occupied by a gruff, extremely overweight campaign worker lay a pile of merchandize – color TVs, VCR’s, microwaves, and more. When he finally put down the telephone he had been chewing I asked, “What’s this stuff for?”  “Door prizes,” he spit back. Politics in East Chicago in the 1990’s was rough and tumble and old school, a throw-back.  I thought it should be documented in some way and when one of Pastrick’s sons asked me if I knew anyone who might write a book about his father, I suggested a documentary film. This was early 1999 as Pastrick was launching another of his “last” campaigns against Stephen “Bob” Stiglich, former Lake County sheriff and then Democratic county chairman. It would be the final face-off of three between them, bare-knuckled political battles that were like campaign versions of the Ali-Frazier fights.

  • MIAMI  – Indiana’s 9th Congressional district is a bellwether race. That according to Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, who named the race between Democrat Shelli Yoder and Republican Trey Hollingsworth as one of his top three House races to watch for a wave election for House Democrats.  A year ago, the 9th district was labeled “safe Republican” by respected handicappers Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg. Republicans have a built-in 9-point advantage in the 9th as a result of redistricting before the 2012 election. In fact, Yoder lost to incumbent and current U.S. Senate candidate Todd Young by 10% four years ago. Very few observers gave Yoder a chance this time. Now polling shows the race between Yoder and Hollingsworth tied. Yoder is clearly the superior candidate. She has learned from her first race and is generating intense enthusiasm among the Democratic faithful in Southern Indiana. She is a natural with a unique way to connect to everyday Hoosiers. Her campaign commercials tout that “Shelli is one of us” — a claim Hollingsworth has no way of making credibly.
  • WASHINGTON - Just as surprising as Donald Trump’s nomination is the fact that many Republicans are embracing certain Trump positions that are antithetical to the party’s core beliefs. Some in the GOP, like Indiana’s Governor and Vice Presidential nominee Mike Pence, are bending over backwards to support statements by Trump that are way outside the party’s mainstream of thought—positions they couldn’t possibly share. The most egregious example is the way some Republicans have defended Trump’s unflinching admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a tyrant and thug who Trump seems to view as a leadership model. It was just four years ago that the GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, harshly criticized President Barrack Obama for not taking the Putin threat seriously enough. Now the Russian menace seems to have evaporated in the eyes of Trump’s surrogates.  The hypocrisy on this is palpable. Undoubtedly, Republicans would have characterized Obama as traitorous had he lavished similar praise on the Russian leader as Trump has on Putin.
  • WASHINGTON – With the conventions over and three months to go, the dynamics of the 2016 campaign appear set. The presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is now Clinton’s to lose.  Granted, there are potential land mines and unforeseen circumstances that could shake things up, such as more embarrassing e-mails, even more incidents of terror, or a serious misstep on the campaign trail. But for now, certain facts are clear that point to a likely Clinton victory: 1. Democrats have been able to reframe the election as a referendum on Donald Trump’s values rather than a referendum on Hillary Clinton.  At their convention, Democrats turned Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” on its head, arguing that America already is great and that to suggest otherwise is a smear on the country and its citizens. Trump’s dark themes of fear and resentment gave Democrats the opportunity to embrace positive themes of family values, American exceptionalism, and patriotism. Unless Trump can turn the election into a referendum on Clinton, Democrats will be fighting on their turf. 2. The successful Democratic Convention erased Trump’s lead as post-convention polls show Clinton now with a clear advantage.
  • WASHINGTON – It may seem quaint now, but there was a time in American presidential politics when Labor Day marked the unofficial start of the fall campaign season. These days, the fall campaign begins whenever the candidates win enough delegates to secure the nominations of their respective parties, if not before.  Thus, the 2016 campaign is fully engaged now in June. The fundamental dynamics of this campaign will be set this summer, maybe even before the conventions. Those dynamics will be changed after Labor Day only by some dramatic event such as scandal, the specter of war or a looming economic catastrophe. Mitt Romney learned this lesson the hard way. In June 2012, Romney was hit with a series of tough television ads that defined him as a heartless corporate raider who enjoyed firing people and whose private equity firm, Bain Capital, destroyed the lives of ordinary working people. 
  • WASHINGTON – It was like old times waiting for election results from Indiana’s primary Tuesday. Hoosier politics is a whole lot more fun when it is relevant nationally. These are some lessons I draw from Tuesday’s election. 1. Message wins elections and Donald Trump’s message resonated with Hoosiers considerably more than Ted Cruz’s. The conventional wisdom several weeks out was that Ted Cruz was a better fit for Indiana’s conservatism than Donald Trump. Instead, Trump’s blue-collar message of strong leadership and getting tough on trade and illegal immigration resonated much more than Cruz’s more narrowly focused hard-line evangelical message. In addition, Cruz’s nakedly political deal with John Kasich and the naming of Carly Fiorina as his vice presidential running mate came across as desperate and undercut his claim that he was the candidate of principle. 2. Trump’s “take no prisoners” style of politics worked.  Most presidential candidates come to negative campaigning reluctantly. Donald Trump embraced it from the start of his campaign as he systematically destroyed his opposition from Jeb Bush to Scott Walker to Ben Carson to Marco Rubio. Trump’s willingness to go on the attack was key to his growing success.
  • WASHINGTON – Basketball is the closest thing in Indiana to a state religion.  Or, as Phillip M. Hoose wrote in his wonderful look at heartland America, Hoosiers: The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana, “Indiana is basketball’s hometown.” So it is not surprising candidates in next Tuesday’s Indiana primary would try to lay claim to the Hoosier state’s hoops tradition. Nonetheless, it has been a bit amusing to watch some out-of-staters fumble the ball. Earlier this week, former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight returned to Indiana to campaign in Indianapolis with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.  Knight led the Hoosiers to three national championships and arguably could have been elected governor of the state around that time. But Knight is now regarded by many Hoosiers as every bit a bombastic, sexist, and polarizing a figure as Trump. Knight’s introduction of Trump consisted mostly of a nonsensical rant about longhaired teens and predictable complaints about the dearth of great leaders in America. By bringing in Knight, Trump has a speaker who is essentially preaching to the choir rather than expanding his base. But because Indiana is an open primary state, Knight could possibly help attract some voters who would usually stay home on primary election day.
  • WASHINGTON – The party nomination process is a bit like March Madness. We root for the upset in the early rounds, but we expect the established teams to end up in the finals. We root for upsets in politics too, even though they are infrequent. They are especially rare in primary elections. Primary election upsets are rare mostly because those backing the established candidate have too much at stake to lose and are willing to put their money where there mouth is.  But occasionally voters decide that it’s time to stick it to the establishment candidate.  In 2012, in what is arguably Indiana’s biggest ever primary upset, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock knocked off six-term incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar, who was considered so unbeatable that Democrats did not even field a candidate against him in 2006.  In 2008 former Congresswoman Jill Long Thompson defeated Jim Schellinger for the Democratic nomination for governor, although Schellinger was recruited to run by party leaders and he outspent her by more than 2 to 1. There have been other notable upsets and I wrote about some a few years back in a column titled “Indiana’s Top Ten Primary Upsets.” At the top of my list was Bobby Kennedy defeating Indiana Gov. Roger Branigin and Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968.
  • WASHINGTON - The celebrated Bernie Sanders campaign ad featuring the classic Simon and Garfunkel recording “America” helps explain what is behind the Bernie Sanders surge in Iowa.  The ad with its lovely imagery and uplifting message encapsulates what the Sanders campaign is about—ordinary people coming together to form a political movement in order to restore America’s promise.  Like the iconic song recorded in February 1968, on the eve of the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the ad conveys a search for lost idealism. The 60-second spot contains no dialogue. Rather, it consists of a panorama of everyday Americana images—small towns, farm fields, working people—intertwined with huge Sanders rally shots. In the background, the duo sings their beautiful tune concluding with the refrain “they’ve all come to look for America.” Of course, the actual Paul Simon lyrics—like the year 1968--end on a darker note as the song moves prophetically from hope to disillusionment.  Nonetheless, the Sanders spot resonates as a sweeping political statement about hope and change in 2016.

  • WASHINGTON – In his breakthrough book “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,” historian Rick Perlstein reveals how the Republican establishment in 1964 continued to be in denial about Sen. Goldwater’s rise to the nomination all the way to the California primary in June when he defeated New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. By then it was too late to stop Goldwater and he went on to an historic loss to President Lyndon Johnson. Obviously, there are many differences between 1964 and 2016, but the similarities are striking. The GOP establishment this cycle has been similarly in denial about Donald Trump.  Month after month Republicans and the media have predicted his demise as Trump has continued to ride high in the polls. Last week’s CNN/ORC poll puts Trump at 36%, 20 points ahead of bad boy Ted Cruz who is now in 2nd place nationally. Conservative outsiders have topped the field since July. Even if the establishment were able to take down Trump, he might not be replaced by anyone remotely acceptable to them. Like 1964 when Goldwater occupied an empty field for months, there is a vacuum of message in the 2016 race that Trump has filled. At the outset of the cycle Republicans bragged about the quality of candidates in 2016.
  • WASHINGTON – If House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is correct in asserting that the Benghazi Select Committee’s work was responsible for driving down Hillary Clinton’s favorable ratings, it is equally true that the Oct. 22 Benghazi hearing gave Clinton a big boost in her resurgence. Clinton emerged from the hearing as a confident, poised victor while Republicans slinked away, tails between their legs, having failed miserably in accomplishing anything of value either for their side or the American people. Clinton is now on a roll that began with McCarthy’s truthful gaffe on FOX’s Sean Hannity show in late September. His comments amounted to an admission that Republicans were using tax dollars to derail her presidential campaign. Clinton’s appearance three weeks later before the Select Committee further exposed the brazenly political nature of the committee’s work as the rude, accusatory questioning was clearly designed to discredit her rather than determine the truth.
  • WASHINGTON – It’s often said in politics that a candidate can learn more from losing than winning. Bill Clinton as the nation’s youngest former governor learned enough from his 1980 loss to win it right back in a rematch. Barack Obama used lessons from his 2000 loss for a U.S. House seat to successfully win a seat in the U.S. Senate four years later. John Gregg and Glenda Ritz are good examples of both sides of that adage. Former House Speaker Gregg, who started slowly in his 2012 race for governor before losing to Mike Pence in a surprisingly close election, is off to a fast start in a possible re-match. On the other hand, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz thus far seems to have learned the wrong lessons from her stunning victory over incumbent Tony Bennett in 2012.
  • WASHINGTON - Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the two candidates favored by their respective party establishments and traditional donors, kicked off their respective 2016 campaigns for president this past week. Clinton is running as a “fighter for every day hard working Americans,” a progressive message that should resonate with much of the Democratic base. Meanwhile, Bush is running as an innovative and competent leader with the experience to put the country back on the right track. As much as establishment Republican leaders hoped to avoid the circus atmosphere of four years ago, Donald Trump’s entry into the presidential race Tuesday guarantees the opposite and underscores the difficult road Republicans face again in next year’s race for the White House. The mere presence of such outlandish characters as Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Dr. Ben Carson demonstrates how far off the right-wing deep end the GOP has gone.  As they did in 2012, the extreme candidates will pull the rest of the Republican candidates to the right and turn off voters.
  • WASHINGTON – You can usually tell when a nomination is worth something by the number of candidates wanting to run for it. So it is with the Indiana Democratic Party and the chance to take on a wounded Governor Mike Pence. Just a few months ago, former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg was the putative Democratic nominee for governor as former Congressman Baron Hill was quietly transitioning from the gubernatorial to the U.S. Senate race. Now that Pence appears truly vulnerable Gregg faces two opponents, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and State Senator Karen Tallian.  Others, including Jim Schellinger who lost the 2008 gubernatorial primary, Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, and State Rep. Ed DeLaney, who spoke out forcefully during the RFRA controversy, have also been mentioned.
  • WASHINGTON – The fierce backlash against passage of Indiana’s so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) tore through the state and the nation like an early spring tornado.  Leaving in its wake was a changed political landscape.  Here are 10 takeaways from the RFRA controversy. 1. The politics of the cultural wars have shifted dramatically. A decade ago, 60 percent of Americans opposed marriage equality. Now it’s reversed, with 60 percent in support. Democrats used to be on the wrong side of cultural issues and now it is Republicans who are. Religious conservatives in Indiana promoted RFRA as a way to strike back at a federal court’s recent decision declaring Indiana’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. It blew up in the faces. One of the main reasons for the sea change is that millennials, people born between 1981 and 1997, are transforming America’s politics and culture.
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  • Trump wanted to shut down U.S. border with Mexico
    “Close the whole thing!” - President Trump in a stormy Oval Office meeting about immigration. The Washington Post reported that aides talked Trump out of shutting down the U.S.-Mexican border, telling him it would curtail $600 billion in annual trade. Chief of Staff John Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton reportedly had a “profane” argument that prompted Kelly to storm out of the White House. Meanwhile, an immigrant caravan coursing through Mexico is becoming a late mid-term campaign issue. Trump said in rally in Mesa, Arizona Friday night, "Democrats produce mobs, Republicans produce jobs."
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  • It's Oct. 20 and it's weirdly green in Brown County
    In another year of Category 4 hurricanes ravaging the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, wildfires devouring hundreds of thousands of acres in the American west, and a landmark United Nations report painting dire consequences of climate change coming as early as 2040, this has been a strange, strange autumn down here in Brown County.

    It’s Oct. 20, and it’s still green. There is very little color here in what should be the heart of what locals call “leaf looker” season. The golds, yellows and reds are mostly missing. And most of the leaves are still on the trees (though today’s high winds will change that a bit). Looks like peak color will come next weekend. No matter the color, c'mon down! 
    - Brian A. Howey, publisher.
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