By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – If South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg builds a viable presidential campaign and somehow lasts until the May 2020 Indiana primary, would he carry the state? My initial answer: Perhaps.

Mayor Pete is attempting a political trajectory that is completely untraditional for a presidential hopeful. Most candidates build up a statewide organization as a power base, or at least in a major urban area like Barack Obama did in Chicago, and then attempt to extrapolate it into a national context. But that is not the case with Buttigieg.

He was seen as a rising star when Indiana Democrats nominated him to run statewide for treasurer in 2010. He took on an ascendant Republican incumbent Richard Mourdock, who was already making plans to challenge U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in 2012. Mourdock was a persistent presence in the unfolding Tea Party movement, traveling statewide to build up his base. 

Mourdock pasted Buttigieg, 62.5% to 37.5%. It wasn’t too damaging to the Rhodes Scholar. His ticket mates, Vop Osili for secretary of state and Sam Locke for auditor, only polled 37%. Democrats had little success winning the statewide constitutional offices since the 1990s when Pamela Carter and Jeff Modisett won attorney general races (both had the advantage of running under a Democratic governor). In Modisett’s case, he won the year of Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s 1996 upset and had served as prosecutor of Marion County in Indiana’s largest media market.

Buttigieg parlayed his 2010 statewide run into an overwhelming victory in the 2011 South Bend mayoral race, emerging from a crowded Democratic primary to win the general with 80%-plus of the vote. As mayor, he dominated the South Bend/Elkhart media market, which ranks 95th in the nation (with 319,000 homes with TV) but covers less than 10 counties in Indiana. Prior to his runs for state treasurer and mayor, Buttigieg had interned for Jill Long Thompson’s 2nd CD campaign in 2002 and later served as an adviser to her 2008 gubernatorial campaign.

It’s worth noting that South Bend Democrats in the television era have rarely projected themselves statewide. Sen. Dick Bodine lost the 1968 gubernatorial nomination, as legend has it, when some of his local delegates opted for the hotel pool as opposed to the convention floor. The most conspicuous South Bend politician was Gov. Joe Kernan, who joined Frank O’Bannon’s ticket in 1996 and served as lieutenant governor, but in late 2002 opted out of the 2004 gubernatorial race after a dispute with O’Bannon over the selection of Peter Manos as state Democratic Party chair. Manos was indicted and resigned, then O’Bannon died in September 2003 and Kernan re-entered the race, only to become the first incumbent governor to lose, in 2004 to Mitch Daniels.

As for statewide networking, Buttigieg was a popular presence with Accelerating Indiana Municipalities (AIM) and has a potential network of some 55 Democratic mayors who know him. But as for building a statewide brand, that’s a route the mayor bypassed. He was not featured as a Jefferson-Jackson Dinner keynoter. Nor did he establish a presence as a campaigner for Democrats across the state in the way that John Gregg has lately and others like Evan Bayh and Frank O’Bannon did to build up a statewide organization.

As Democratic minorities in the General Assembly diminished into super-minority status, along with the atrophy of Democratic officials at the county level during the popular governorships of Mitch Daniels and now Eric Holcomb, Buttigieg was often on the list of potential gubernatorial and congressional prospects. But he had no desire to serve in Congress, and, as a gay man in Indiana, saw little prospect of becoming a viable challenger to Holcomb.

While the Indiana Democratic Party has come a long way since its Copperhead era during the Civil War, there remains a level of intolerance on both the racial and LGBT fronts. When U.S. Rep. Baron Hill endorsed Barack Obama for president in April 2008, he was shocked at some of the criticism from Democrats in his 9th CD. Obama lost that primary to Hillary Clinton (which had the support of the Bayh machine) but won the state that November by just 1%.

In the late 1990s, a number of prominent General Assembly Democrats supported efforts to declare marriage between a man and woman, as well as a pro-life wing that included Democrats like Gregg and Sen. Joe Donnelly. The party has come a long way from the 1990s to 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal. But as with race, the notion of a gay official is still an uncomfortable concept in some warrens around the state.

There has been a dissonance between the long-entrenched Democratic establishment and voters. The most glaring example was the party hierarchy backing Hillary Clinton in 2016, while Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders won the primary with 53%. So, Hoosier Democrats are a dysfunctional bunch without a clear and widespread progressive streak, as evidenced by Sen. Joe Donnelly’s unsuccessful reelection bid that angered some progressives. In the Bayh/O’Bannon era, successful statewide Democrats have been “Conservative Lite.” Buttigieg is cut from a different philosophical cloth.

If your home state doesn’t afford you a realistic shot at winning a gubernatorial or senatorial race, what’s a politician to do? Run for Democratic National chairman or president, with a potential shot of a cabinet post as a consolation prize, as Buttigieg is doing today.

Widely considered a long shot, let’s say that Mayor Pete catches fire the way Jimmy Carter did in 1976 or Bill Clinton did in 1992. Remember, this is the Trump era where “anything can happen.” Most likely by May of 2020, only two or three contenders will remain. Could Buttigieg carry his state in a hypothetical race with say, former vice president Biden or (pick one) Sens. Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar?

We give it that emphatic “perhaps.” There would be the notion of coalescing around a native Hoosier, as Republicans did with Abraham Lincoln in 1860 at a time when many perceived him as an uncouth country lawyer. 

South Bend Tribune columnist Jack Colwell told HPI, “I think it’s impossible to tell now whether Pete would carry Indiana in the primary. He must do well in the first tests, especially Iowa, to have a chance to move on as a serious contender and be viable by the time of Indiana. Do well? Can’t set a percentage yet, but when the field is set and Iowa polls start coming out, we can look at possible percentages for survival. If he were a top contender by the time of Indiana – a long short, of course – he would do well here.”

Buttigieg passed on building a brand across Indiana, working the Jefferson-Jackson circuit or major media markets leading up to his current exploratory committee, which will now focus on Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other early primary states.