By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – What happens when a dog chases and catches a car?

In Hoosier political and policy circles, you get SEA1 complete with the signature of Gov. Eric Holcomb an hour later. You get a leadership shakeup in the Senate. And you find a population that not only doesn’t support these new abortion restrictions, but is likely to become angrier when the stories of rape and incest pregnancies of teenagers are covered in future news cycles.

If you’re Democrat secretary of state nominee Destiny Wells, you find yourself in an unexpectedly tossup race. If you’re Sen. Linda Rogers, Rep. Dale DeVon or Wendy McNamara, you ponder the concept of “tossup” in your new reapportioned districts.

And if you’re U.S. Sen. Todd Young, you are monitoring a potential surge of suburban female voter registrations in what has, until now, been a lop-sided race against Democratic Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.

There is palpable and growing concern in GOP circles about the general environment, especially the sudden shift nationally. The plan to make President Biden the theme of the national campaign is eroding. Biden’s approvals are ticking up slightly, inflation and gas prices down a little. The subpar quality of the U.S. Senate candidates is becoming problematic for GOP as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned his Trumpian base that “candidate quality matters.”

The perfect storm for Republicans – the Roe repeal, the House Jan. 6 panel, Biden legislative agenda victories, and a decline in prices – is now taking shape. Last weekend’s NBC Poll documented this shift.

The traditional measurements – presidential job approval, the country’s direction, generic ballot – all point to a rough election season for the power controlling the White House and Congress, akin to what we saw in 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018, explained Chuck Todd in his NBC Meet The Press First Read. “Per our poll, President Biden’s job rating is at 42% (even after some big wins); more than 70% believe the country is headed in the wrong direction for a fifth straight NBC News survey (a record in our poll); and Republicans lead in congressional preference by 2 points (after being tied in May).

“All three measurements would be pointing to SHELLACKING for the president’s party in our Midterm Meter,” Todd continues. “Yet other numbers in our poll make it clear this doesn’t look like 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018. For starters, Democrats have now drawn even with Republicans on enthusiasm, with 66% of Dem voters expressing high interest in the upcoming midterms, versus 68% for Republicans.”

Second, while abortion remains the lowest of the top issues, the fact that 15% of Democrats see it as a significant issue shows why party enthusiasm is now up. The top issue – the threat to American democracy – is a direct result of the Jan. 6 hearings that have featured 100% Republican, pro-Trump testifiers.  

Here in Indiana it feels like the abortion bill is going to be a problem in the general election. Public polling (and the unreleased private GOP caucus polling) suggest that every element of SB1 faces wide opposition, evidenced by an almost complete lack of those testifying in support of the bill. A subplot has been the concern of the medical community about the interference in patient-doctor relationship and the long term impacts on attracting top notch medical professionals to Indiana. This bill has strained the strong relationship the medical community has had with the GOP.

Any legislator who voted for the unsuccessful efforts to remove rape and incest exceptions should be concerned if they have a viable opponent (Mike Young amendment in the Senate, Karen Engleman amendment in the House). Although it failed, the legislators who voted for it are very out of step with their constituents on this matter and they can easily be labeled as “not conservative or Republican but extreme.”
 
Then there was last week’s Senate leadership shakeup, with President Pro-Tempore Rodric Bray replacing Majority Floor Leader Mark Messmer with State Sen. Chris Garten. Messmer opposed SB1 in committee, saying that every pro-life advocacy group had urged him to vote no. He then skipped the final vote.

“I was removed for voting against SB1,” Messmer told IndyPolitics. “I opposed SB1 because the timing of bring the bill in a rushed special session was wrong and no one on the pro-life or pro-choice side of the issue liked the bill.” Messmer declined an HPI interview request as the hallway has become thick with rumors that the Jasper Republican was instigating a coup attempt against Bray. Tonight’s joint House/Senate majority caucus fundraiser at Victory Field should be interesting.

The Messmer scenario is multi-layered. He appeared to be actively working against SB1 at a time when most of the Republican Statehouse establishment had urged Gov. Holcomb to call a special session in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe. In fact, Messmer was one of 100 Republicans urging in a March 8 letter that Holcomb call a special session “at the earliest date practicable” to “expand Indiana’s ability to protect unborn children.”

Had we had a chance to talk to Messmer, HPI would have asked:

You were removed from your position because of SB1. Why were you opposed to SB1?

The Senate GOP caucus was seeking to act following SCOTUS. As majority leader wasn’t it a reasonable expectation by President Bray and the caucus that you would be on board to accomplish their desires?

In retrospect, wasn’t the GOP super majority letter signed by most Republicans in both the Senate and the House and addressed to Holcomb urging a special session on this topic a mistake?

Some Statehouse observers have said that the second reading session in the Senate was among the worst they have seen. Votes on amendments to eliminate rape and incest exceptions, and force rape victims to get notarized affidavits, were especially cringeworthy, forcing Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch to break a tie. How did you feel about these “bad” votes preceding a general election? Do you think the Senate Majority has some seats at risk as a result of these votes and SB1?

“Sen. Garten has proven himself a highly capable and passionate leader, and I’m looking forward to working closely with him on our leadership team in the coming legislative session,” Bray said in announcing the switch. “Chris is a problem-solver who is dedicated to public service, and I think he will do a great job in this new role.”

While the majority House and Senate caucuses hold super majority status, that was due to gerrymandering, and not public support of the issues. The problem facing Hoosier Republicans is that the general public was not prepared for the passage of SEA1 and its life-altering provisions.

Conservative HPI columnist Craig Dunn (a former Republican Central Committee member), wrote last week, “I was gobsmacked when the State of Kansas put the issue of abortion to their citizens and the citizens voted nearly two to one to allow women to decide for themselves when it comes to reproductive rights. I would have expected the exact opposite result. My guess is that the Kansas Legislature would have passed an anti-abortion bill by a wide margin, if not for the referendum process. Perhaps some future Indiana General Assembly, when faced with an extremely divisive issue, will take
that issue directly to the Hoosier voter for the ultimate expression of democracy.”

The full brunt of SEA1 may not be felt until 2024, when a Democratic gubernatorial nominee would be wise to run on an abortion referendum issue. By that time, legislative social conservatives are expected to seek to close the rape/incest exclusions. The 1988 lottery referendum helped elect Democrat Secretary of State Evan Bayh to the governor’s office, ending a 20-year Republican dynasty.  They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. What rhymes with “Destiny”?