INDIANAPOLIS – Rex Early enunciated the central truth about the reality of a major party power: “Being state chairman with a governor and being state chairman without a governor is the difference between ice cream and dog poop.” Since 1960, there have been 37 Republican and Democratic chairmen and for two years, Ann DeLaney ran the Indiana Democratic Party. This club of power is almost exclusively dominated by white males. In addition to DeLaney, the only minority chair was Robin Winston under Gov. Frank O’Bannon.

There were the transformational chairs like Republicans James Neal, Jim Kittle, Eric Holcomb and now Kyle Hupfer, and Democrats like John Livengood and Joe Andrew, who helped pave the way for gubernatorial party switches and prolonged power maintenance.

There were placeholder chairs like Republican Mike McDaniel and Democrats Gordon St. Angelo, Dan Parker and John Zody, who attempted with varying degrees of success to stabilize their parties while lacking resources (i.e. the governor).

There were those who served at the pleasure of their governors: Thomas Milligan and Bruce Melchert under Gov. Doc Bowen; Gordon Durnil during Gov. Robert Orr’s two terms; Murray Clark and Holcomb under Gov. Mitch Daniels; Hupfer under Gov. Holcomb; Democrats John Livengood, Michael Pannos and DeLaney under Gov. Evan Bayh, and Robin Winston under Gov. Frank O’Bannon; Joe Hogsett and Kip Tew under Gov. Joe Kernan; Tim Berry and Jeff Cardwell under Gov. Mike Pence.

And there were the rescue chairs – Rex Early and current Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl – who took the job when their parties were at a low ebb.

Early describes in his book, “It’s a Mighty Thin Pancake,” that he was summoned to Indianapolis by a “friend” urging him to run for the chair on February 1991. The party was about $600,000 in debt after previous chairs Virgil Scheidt and Keith Luse displayed a lack of fundraing prowess. After the Republican Central Committee elected Early, he was met in the lobby by an Indiana National Bank representative, who wanted the new chair to personally guarantee a $300,000 note the party had borrowed during the waning days of the 1988 campaign. A few weeks later, a friend of Early’s wrote a $5,000 check so the party could make its payroll.

Early took the helm as Gov. Bayh ended the license branch money that used to flow into the party in power. When Early met with the president of Indiana Bell and was told the company didn’t donate to political parties, Early glanced at his watch, got up and said, “I forgot, I’m supposed to be waxing my alligator, so I have got to go.”

Party chairs have four major duties: Raise money, keep the party functioning by making the right hires and developing the best practice technology, recruit candidates, and make peace with the various party factions.

Here are some of the notable Republican chairs:

John K. Snyder: The state treasurer had a stormy tenure with Gov. Edgar Whitcomb, ending with his resignation in early 1972. Doc Bowen described in his book, “Doc: Memories from a Life of Public Service,” that Snyder had engaged in “pitched battles with Gov. Whitcomb” that had “embarrassed Republicans, irrespective of their factional alliances. Eventually, concern about their feud and what it might do to the party’s chances in 1972 led to a consensus that saw Snyder’s resignation.”

James Neal: The Noblesville Daily Ledger editor was elected to replace Snyder. Bowen writes, “As party secretary, he presided at the 1966 House caucus when I was elected speaker. I knew Jim would be neutral and fair and I expected him to be a superb chair. He was exactly that.” Neal had intended to resign after the election, but he agreed to stay on.

Thomas S. Milligan and Bruce Melchert: Milligan succeeded Neal as chair, then ran unsuccessfully for RNC chair, losing to former Tennessee senator Bill Brock. Melchert took the reins of the party and created the 1976 “Bowen Team” ticket that included Treasurer Julian Ridlen, Charlie Loos for auditor, Ed Simcox for secretary of state and Marjorie O’Laughlin for clerk of courts. Bowen writes of Melchert: “This five-foot, five-inch enthusiastic, hardworking forward thinker did a very credible job for four and a half years.”

Gordon Durnil: He was a protege of legendary Marion County Republican Chairman L. Keith Bulen who took the reins of the GOP during the middle of its 20-year dynasty, serving for eight years under Gov. Robert Orr. Durnil writes in 2017, “We set out to establish three clear purposes: 1, Create a metropolitan form of government for the county (UniGov) to make government more efficient; 2, Create a University of Indianapolis under the thinking that no city can be great without a great university; 3, Always put forth qualified candidates for election. We accomplished purpose number 1 and UniGov still functions. As for the third purpose, we sought out highly qualified candidates for public office – physicians, lawyers, business people, educators, etc. We ran a CPA for county treasurer, a physician for coroner. We also had some “simply average” folks in the mix. Our quality candidates won for 25 or so years, but then it became more and more difficult to entice high quality individuals to seek public office. During my term as GOP chairman I found it increasingly difficult to recruit high quality individuals. The primary reason being the destructive instincts of the opposing party and the media encouraging them to tear into an individual who has high public approval.” Durnil stands out in another way, becoming one of the first Republican leaders to embrace environmentalism well before the term “climate change” became in vogue.

Rex Early: The Wheatfield native served only two years as party chair when the GOP was just a few years into the final era of Democratic gubernatorial dominance, but he stands out for several reasons. First, he went from party chair to a regular on the PBS show “Indiana Week in Review” where he continued to shape the GOP talking points. This was important in the pre-Internet, pre-social media world. He became the first modern party chair to run for governor, finishing second in 1996 Republican primary to Steve Goldsmith despite having the endorsements of some 70 county chairs, including nearly every one from southern Indiana, where Goldsmith was upset by Lt. Gov. Frank O’Bannon. Early would be followed by fellow chairs Joe Andrew, Eric Holcomb and now Kyle Hupfer in attempting to use the chair as a gubernatorial stepping stone. Early’s comic personality yielded scores of stories, many of which cannot be told here, lending to an out-sized impact as a beloved Republican Party elder. And Early scored perhaps the biggest “third act” in Hoosier history, when he abandoned support in 2016 for John Kasich and decided to back Donald Trump for president. Early correctly gauged the mood of Hoosier Republicans who wanted to “build the wall.” While the initial Republican RNC slate contained just two Trump backers – Early and Sullivan County Chairman Bill Springer – by July Trump selected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence for the ticket, to be followed by a pair of 57% showings in 2016 and 2020, the former allowing Holcomb to ascend to the governorship. Early was also instrumental in orchestrating a number of Hoosiers into the Trump administration.

Mike McDaniel: He had managed Lt. Gov. John Mutz’s 1988 campaign that lost to Evan Bayh, ending the first modern GOP dynasty. He was deputy campaign manager in the 1980 and 1984 Orr/Mutz campaigns. He served as GOP chair from 1995 to 2002, a tenure just short of Durnil’s record. Early observed in his book, “It’s a Mighty Thin Pancake,” writing, “Mike McDaniel was a good state chairman. He loved the job and was cut out to be a state chairman. He was a great organizer and spent a lot of his blood sugar and effort in raising money the old-fashioned way: Putting together state fundraising dinners with a top-notch main speaker. Mike really wanted the RNC to be in Indianapolis and almost got it. No one has ever loved the job like Mike did.” 

Jim Kittle: In the Aug. 20, 2001 edition of Howey Politics Indiana: Perhaps late on the night of Nov. 7, 2002, or on Election Night 2004, Indiana Republicans will look back on Aug. 14, 2001, and say that was the day their new-found successes began. It was last Tuesday that The Phoenix Group had its open house at the Klipsch Audio Technologies headquarters near the Indianapolis pyramids. It was a fundraiser like no other the party had seen in years. The Phoenix Group formed earlier this year by GOP financiers Jim Kittle, Bob Grand and Randall Tobias in an effort to reinvigorate the once thriving Indiana Republican machine that has been shut out of gubernatorial races since the rise of Evan Bayh in 1988. Kittle and other Republican financiers have grown frustrated over what they see as a four-year cycle of “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to statewide races. “It seems like we start from scratch every time,” he told Howey Politics. And there’s been growing frustration over high-level campaigns run by John Mutz, Stephen Goldsmith, David McIntosh and Sue Anne Gilroy where a lack of money hasn’t been a problem. What has hamstrung Indiana Republicans has been top-flight competition, poor strategy and execution, and a lack of competitive technology.

Kittle joined Bob Grand and Randy Tobias in forming The Phoenix Group, which was essentially a shadow party. When Mike McDaniel stepped down, it created a race between Kittle and Grant County’s John Earnest (who had lost a chair race to Rex Early a decade before), with Kittle prevailing. It was all seen as a precursor to Mitch Daniels leaving his White House budget director post to run for governor. Daniels would say after Kittle was elected chair, “I would walk across hot coals for Jim Kittle and Ed Simcox.” Kittle told Howey Politics after he was elected, “All sorts of people came up to me after he spoke and said I should recruit Mitch. What I’m doing is creating a political party that will be strong enough to help great candidates when they become available. We want to recruit best of class candidates. But there was no clear signal that Mitch has changed his position.” As we all know, Daniels came back and defeated Democrat Gov. Joe Kernan in 2004, setting in motion the second GOP dynasty that is still intact today.

Eric Holcomb: He was unanimously elected GOP chairman after Murray Clark stepped down in January 2011. Holcomb found a party seething with discontent as Treasurer Richard Mourdock challenged U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary while the Tea Party movement prevailed across the party. But it was also a party of seething testosterone as Rep. Mike Pence and Gov. Mitch Daniels openly toyed with seeking the 2012 presidential nomination. When First Lady Cherie Daniels gave the GOP keynote address in April 2011, hundreds green and white “Run Mitch Run” placards were produced by ... the Indiana Republican Party.  As a member of Gov. Daniels’ staff, Holcomb had helped recruit the 2010 General Assembly candidates that returned the House majority to Republicans, giving them the ability to draw the maps for the next decade. As chairman, Holcomb helped assuage members of the Central Committee unnerved by the vast change that had occurred during the Daniels administration. It set in motion the General Assembly super majorities the GOP had forged in the 2012 election that still exist today. And it set Holcomb up as a major statewide player, resulting in his 2016 U.S. Senate candidacy, which morphed into his appointment by Gov. Mike Pence as LG, and then his unprecedented July gubernatorial nomination by the Indiana Republican Central Committee six months later. Now in his second term as governor, Holcomb just missed setting the plurality record set by Gov. Bayh in 1992. One Central Committee member told HPI, “Where Eric showed a lot of leadership is he did a really good job in bringing the various wings of the party together.”

Kyle Hupfer: After the 2020 election, Chairman Hupfer pondered how much more dominant the state party could be. Hoosier Republicans now control 88% of all county elected offices, or 1,330 out of 1,509. This comes on top of holding all of the Statehouse constitutional offices, nine out of 11 congressional offices, 71 mayoral offices after a 19-office increase in 2019, while it has maintained super majorities in the Indiana House (71 out of 100) and Senate (39 out of 50). In a memo to party stakeholders in December 2020, it was noted that Hupfer’s partnership with Gov. Holcomb has led to four of the strongest years in party history, with $25 million raised. The Indiana GOP has set and broken fund-raising and voting records, made significant inroads with constituencies not historically aligned with their party, and expanded the map of elected Republicans throughout the state. The combined fundraising total for the 2017-2020 period is: State party: $12,533,029; Eric Holcomb For Indiana: $12,503,883; for a fundraising total of $25,036,912. “Never has a political team achieved the successes Gov. Holcomb, Chairman Hupfer, and the Indiana Republican Party have achieved at every level,” the GOP memo stated. “The Indiana Democrats have been relegated to minor, fringe-party status, unable or unwilling to compete for Hoosier votes. Each time the Indiana Republican Party was said to have reached a political zenith, we’ve gone even higher and broadened our party even more. And we aren’t done.”

Indiana Democrats

Here are some of the more impactful 17 men and women who have served as Indiana Democrat chair since 1952

Gordon St. Angelo: After managing Gov. Roger D. Branigin’s campaign in 1964, St. Angelo was elected state Democratic Party chairman, a position he held until 1974, a tenure longer than that of any party chairman in Indiana. Though he started his career in the Democratic Party, he was a supporter of many Republican candidates since the mid-70s, endorsing Mitch Daniels for both of his campaigns.

John Livengood: While Keith Bulen had an out-sized multi-generational impact on Hoosier Republicans, it was Secretary of State Larry Conrad who had a similar impact on Democrats. Livengood explained, “I was one of the many young people that became involved in the Democratic Party through the political campaigns of Secretary of State Larry Conrad.” He took the party helm in 1984 as State Sen. Wayne Townsend ran for governor. He then presided over the rise of Evan Bayh, who ran and won a secretary of state race in 1986, and in early 1988 helped broker a deal between Bayh and then State Sen. Frank O’Bannon who had already declared for governor. The resulting Bayh/O’Bannon ticket helped forge 16 consecutive years of the party’s last gubernatorial rule.

Ann DeLaney: She ran the party under Gov. Bayh for two years, becoming the only Hoosier female to do so. She ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1984. She became Gov. Evan Bayh’s legislative director in 1989. After serving as chair of the Indiana Democratic Party, she authored the guide “Politics for Dummies” and became a regular on “Indiana Week in Review.”

Joe Andrew: He served as Gov. Bayh’s final chair, bridging to the O’Bannon era. Following his stint as Indiana chair, he followed the footsteps of Thomas Taggart, becoming Democratic National chairman in 1999 at the behest of President Clinton, at the age of 39, one of the youngest chairpersons in the history of the DNC. He later served as chairman of the New Democratic Network, and in 2006 helped to found The Blue Fund, a mutual fund which invests in companies that contribute to Democratic campaigns. He now serves as the global chairman of Dentons, the world’s largest law firm. After Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan announced he would not seek the governorship in late 2002, Andrew ran and in the summer of 2003, announced a ticket with Bren Simon. Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s death in September 2003 reset the governors race, as now Gov. Kernan opted back in and Andrew dropped out.

Robin Winston: In 1999, he made history when Gov. O’Bannon selected him as chair, becoming the first (and only) African-American to chair a major political party in Indiana. Winston had been Lt. Gov. O’Bannon’s economic development liaison. In 1996, Winston served as deputy campaign manager for O’Bannon in what became the greatest upset in modern gubernatorial history. Winston served as chair during O’Bannon’s reelection victory over Rep. David McIntosh in 2000. Winston now runs the Winston/Terrell Group, one of the largest minority-owned government affairs, community relations and public outreach firms in the nation.

Peter Manous: This Lake County Democrat was chosen by Gov. O’Bannon to succeed Winston as chair, setting in motion a series of events that ended up with Lt. Gov. Kernan pulling out of the 2004 gubernatorial race in December 2002. Kernan felt that he should have chosen the next party chair and was angered when Manous was elevated while he was out of the state. Manous resigned after he was indicted by the federal government in a Region land deal that defrauded a union pension fund. Manous was convicted and served 27 months in federal prison. While Kernan ran for governor in 2004 after O’Bannon’s death, the time he sat out of the 2004 race created the opening for Mitch Daniels to end the Democratic Party’s 16-year gubernatorial run.

Dan Parker: He was the last Democratic chairman who presided over election success. He recruited Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth, who along with Joe Donnelly and Baron Hill won three congressional seats in 2006. He also made the decision not to contest the reelection of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, which allowed the party to direct resources into the three congressional races as well as retaking the Indiana House. Two years later, Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state’s 11 Electoral College votes since 1964. Hoosier Democrats also successfully defended their Indiana House majority, the first time in history that a winning governor’s party did not win that chamber. It would be the last time Indiana Democrats would control a General Assembly chamber. But Parker had regrets in 2008, as Jim Schellinger and Jill Long Thompson had a slugfest primary for governor. It allowed Gov. Daniels to win reelection with 58% of the vote despite his approval numbers falling into the 40% range just a year before the election. Parker later lamented that the decision to avoid a contested primary was “disastrous.” In 2010, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh abruptly ended his reelection bid just hours before the filing deadline, setting in motion an Ellsworth campaign switch for Senate and other down ballot shifts. All would lose, sending the Democratic Party into its current historic tailspin. The party holds only a couple of General Assembly seats in southern Indiana and has subsequently become relegated to urban counties and college towns. Before Parker stepped down, he presided over the 2012 victories of Joe Donnelly in the Senate race and Glenda Ritz in the superintendent of public instruction race.

John Zody: He served for eight years as party chair and never won a statewide or federal race.

Mike Schmuhl: He rose to national prominence managing South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg’s meteoric presidential campaign in 2019-20, winning the Iowa caucuses by concentrating on rural areas. That campaign raised more than $100 million. Schmuhl had run campaigns for Joe Donnelly and Shelli Yoder and served as Mayor Buttigieg’s first chief of staff. He initially turned down the race for chair, then reconsidered and took the post in March, facing the deepest trough the party has experienced. He has since scheduled three statewide tours, including the current rural and small town outreach, reasoning that the party had to “show up” even in deep red counties and communities. Schmuhl told HPI that the year he was born, 1984, South Bend Mayor Jerry Miller chaired the party. “It’s a very unique job,” Schmuhl told HPI on Tuesday. “I think each person brings their own skill set to the job. Just like anything in politics, there’s so much to delve into and you bring your own set of skills to the table. The other thing kind of strange for me is I kind of ran on my own. Of course, I worked for prominent Democrats but a lot of chairs are put in by powers-that-be, where there’s a senator or governor, a bigger figure. We didn’t have that this go-around. I think that frees me up in a way.” Told I was leading this story with the Rex Early quote about being a chair without a governor, Schmuhl said, “That’s a really good one. I had ice cream last night.”