U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly with Indiana Democratic Chairman John Zody (right).
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly with Indiana Democratic Chairman John Zody (right).
WASHINGTON – Nationally, Democrats flipped 40 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the largest for the party since the 1974 post-Watergate election. The total margin, nearly 9 million votes, was the largest ever in terms of raw votes. Democrats even prevailed in several historically red congressional districts, such as in Oklahoma and Orange County, California, where they hadn’t won in decades. 

Democrats also gained seven governor seats, including in Michigan and Wisconsin, Midwestern states Trump carried two years ago. And, they held their losses in the U.S. Senate to just two seats (one seat if you count the Alabama seat Democrats won in a special election a year ago) with a map so horrible some were predicting at the start of the cycle that Republicans could wind up with the 60 seats needed to overcome a filibuster.

Yet in Indiana, where Democrats picked up five House seats in the 1974 Watergate election, they whiffed. Incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly lost decisively to Mike Braun, a novice candidate who was forced to spend much of the campaign defending his anti-worker business practices. And, Democrats were easily dispatched in the three U.S. House districts that they had won in 2006, the last time there was a blue wave. 

While Indiana has historically been a Republican state, Hoosier Democrats are usually able to compete at least during “Democratic years.” So, why did the “blue wave” pass over Indiana? Below are seven factors that contributed to the 2018 Democratic debacle in Indiana:

1.) Trump’s favorable ratings were higher in Indiana. Midterm electoral success is always tied to presidential popularity. President Trump’s popularity bumped slightly nationally in the weeks leading up to the election and was higher in Indiana than in states and congressional districts where Democrats won. This was true not only in Indiana, but also in Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, and North Dakota where Republicans had success. Higher midterm election turnout among Democrats and independents, especially suburban women and new first-time voters, made the difference. But Republican turnout in more rural states like Indiana was also higher than usual for a midterm. Democratic prospects for 2020 in the Hoosier State are not good so long as Trump remains popular.

2.) Gerrymandering in Indiana has virtually eliminated competitive congressional races. Republican extreme gerrymandering in 2011 put every district but the 1st (Peter Visclosky) and the 7th (Andre Carson) congressional districts virtually out of reach for Democrats. Democrats won the 2nd, the 8th, and 9th districts in 2006, the year of the last national blue wave. But going into the 2018 midterms, the 2nd District was plus 11% Republican (in the Cook Partisan Index), the 8th plus 12%, and the 9th plus 13%. Though both were well funded, Mel Hall lost in the 2nd District by almost 10% and Liz Watson lost by nearly 20%. William Tanoos, who raised little, lost by almost 30% in the 8th District. Democrats have won in gerrymandered districts in years past, but this time they didn’t even come close.

3.) Demographic changes have not reached Indiana. The adage “demography is destiny” has convinced Democrats they will eventually triumph in many red states. Indiana is not likely to be one of those states any time soon, however. The demographic changes that made statewide races in Georgia and Texas competitive have not reached Indiana. If anything, Indiana – especially southern Indiana – is trending more red than ever. Election returns show Indiana rural areas were as Republican as ever, while suburban areas failed to vote strongly Democratic as in other states. With suburban voters, especially suburban women, moving toward the Democratic Party nationally, Hoosier Democrats must find a way to win their support in Indiana as well.

4.) The Democratic message is neither clear nor current. Joe Donnelly made a career out of straddling between Democratic and Republican messages. However, down the stretch during the 2018 campaign, he lost control of his message. His Democratic supporters threw up their hands with his embrace of Trump’s border wall and other outlandish Trump policies while Republican-leaning independents turned on him with his vote against the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination. It got to the point where voters, even his own supporters, had difficulty understanding what Joe Donnelly stood for, what his core values were. The Evan Bayh message that dominated Hoosier Democratic campaigns for two decades no longer works and should be discarded (it rarely worked for anyone but Bayh anyway). Democrats need a message that demonstrates they stand for something and are on the side of everyday people. At the same time, it appears unlikely that a Bernie Sanders-style message works anywhere outside of Bloomington. Liz Watson tried it and ran well behind the Democratic performance level in the 9th District, despite being well-funded and organized. Hoosier Democrats must better articulate to voters what they stand for and how they will fight for them if they hope to be competitive in 2020.

5.) Strong, effective leadership is lacking in the Indiana Democratic Party. Hoosier Democrats have often won with a weak state chair. But climbing out of the hole they are in today requires strong party leadership, the kind of leadership the party has not had in years. The IDP continues to operate on the Evan Bayh model long after Bayh has left the scene. And, the Evan Bayh model was created to further the career of one politician; it was not one based on trying to rebuild a party. If Democrats hold any hope of even modest gains in 2020, the Indiana Democratic Party needs to start anew. That starts with a new chair, but that person can’t be just anyone. The new Indiana Democratic Party chair must have the forcefulness and stature to challenge Republican one-party rule with its embarrassing scandals and special interest-based policies, as well as the ability to raise the funds needed to run competitive campaigns up and down the ticket.

6.) Hoosier Democrats failed to field sufficiently strong candidates. Democrats win in Indiana when they field strong candidates. Obviously, strong Democratic candidates don’t always win, but weak Democratic candidates rarely win in Indiana and certainly not in districts held by Republican incumbents. That’s not to say all the 2018 Democratic candidates were weak, although some clearly were. But the Democratic candidates who ran in the historically competitive 2nd, 8th, and 9th were not as well-known and skilled as those who have won in the past and definitely were not as experienced. Too often in recent years, first-time candidates have become the nominees in these districts. Democrats need to convince popular mayors and state legislators and others who have been highly successful outside of politics to run for Congress to have a decent shot at winning these seats.

7.) Hoosiers simply aren’t buying the Democratic brand. This may be the most important factor in the Democratic Party’s failures in Indiana. Too many Hoosier voters do not view the Democratic Party in a favorable light. Part of the problem is the national party brand tends to define the state party. Democrats need a strong identity that is independent of the national party. In the 1980s, Indiana Democrats overcame gerrymandered districts and years of frustrating losses by redefining the Democratic brand. It is past time for Indiana Democrats to do it again. 

Sautter is a Democratic media consultant from Indiana based in Washington.