Sen. Joe Donnelly, Republican Mike Braun (top photos) headlined the top 2018 Indiana political stories. Other big stories involved Senate President David Long, Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Curtis Hill and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.
Sen. Joe Donnelly, Republican Mike Braun (top photos) headlined the top 2018 Indiana political stories. Other big stories involved Senate President David Long, Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Curtis Hill and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett.
By BRIAN A. HOWEY

NASHVILLE, Ind. – The hallmark of 2018 will be the continued erosion of the Indiana Democratic Party, with the state essentially becoming a one-party entity. U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly’s loss to Republican Mike Braun leaves the super minority party with only two congressional seats, just 41 out of 150 seats in the General Assembly, no Statehouse offices, and a catastrophic debasement of its standing across most of Indiana, particularly in rural warrens at the county level.

The year marked a change of the guard at Indiana General Assembly, with Senate President Pro Tem David Long following upper chamber fiscal chairs Luke Kenley and Brandt Hershman into retirement. In the House, the critical injuries suffered by House Ways & Means Chairman Tim Brown gave us a glimpse of the next generation of fiscal leaders there.

At the federal level, it was a mixed year for Vice President Mike Pence, who proved his sway and that of President Donald Trump remains potent in Indiana as the two rallied the GOP with persuasive effect. But the other Pence was seen at an Oval Office meeting between Trump and Democratic leaders in December. This was the "zombie Pence" on the precipice of a government shutdown that heralds what promises to be a sensational 2019 as scandal and volatility continue to mark the White House.

The year continued the national emergence of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is poised for a presidential run in 2019.

And there was the Curtis Hill saga, with his behavior at a sine die party in March surfacing in July, after General Assembly leaders ordered what was essentially an HR report on sexual harassment allegations that was subsequently leaked to the media. Hill won’t face any legal charges, but he is an orphaned Republican as Statehouse leadership continues to call for his resignation.

On Jan. 8, Howey Politics Indiana publishes its 2019 Power 50 List, an exercise we’ve done annually with our readers since 1999. But before we go there, here’s a final glance into the rearview mirror.

1. Donnelly loses Senate seat: Sen. Donnelly faced a daunting challenge by seeking reelection in a state President Trump won by 19% and home to the vice president. Both Trump and Pence returned a combined half a dozen times for MAGA rallies and fundraising events that bolstered the candidacy of Republican Mike Braun. But the final nail came in October when Donnelly announced opposition to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, citing allegations of sexual misconduct when the judge was in high school. Until then, Donnelly was benefiting from an invigorated Democratic base, but the Kavanaugh story ignited a grassroots firestorm in the GOP, ultimately propelling Braun to a 5% win. Braun ended up out-raising Donnelly by almost $2 million (including $11 million of his own money), as $110 million spilled into the race, including $69 million from outside sources, prompting Donnelly to warn in his final Senate speech that "dark money" was overtaking the American political system.

2. Braun easily wins the GOP primary: Mike Braun was not a typical Senate nominee. He had served a decade on the Jasper school board and two terms in the Indiana House. He entered the race in August 2017 facing U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, whom he deemed "cardboard cutout twins." Braun pumped more than $5 million into the primary race, beginning a TV ad campaign in November 2017 that was sustained through the May primary. His name ID had surpassed the congressmen by mid-winter, and he showed up at debates sans coat and tie, his blue-shirted candidacy coming to exemplify the "outsider businessman" with "real world experience" that exploited the persistent poor congressional approval ratings that dogged the two congressmen. Braun won the primary with 41.2%, compared to 30% for Rokita and 28.8% for Messer, setting up the most problematic contrast for Donnelly. 

3. Indiana Democrats fade as major party: Since U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh bolted reelection at the 2010 filing deadline, this party has been in decline, winning only one Statehouse office (Supt. Glenda Ritz in 2012) which she subsequently lost in four years later. While Democrats do control city halls in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Gary, Hammond, South Bend, Kokomo, Bloomington and Lafayette, their local base has been shattered. The most shocking statistic comes at the county level, where Republicans control 89% of county commissioner seats, and 80% of the courthouse offices (auditor, assessor, recorder, clerk). Even during the GOP heyday of the era of Govs. Edgar Whitcomb, Doc Bowen and Robert Orr, Democrats had concentrations county control along the Ohio and Wabash rivers. That all changed with the Bayh bolt in 2010, with Republicans capturing General Assembly super majorities in 2012 and keeping them through 2018. The lone bright spot was Democrat J.D. Ford picking up a GOP Senate seat for the first time in three decades and the party did pick up a handful of suburban House seats, but not enough to return them to relevance. How bad is it for Hoosier Dems? There is no obvious gubernatorial nominee who has surfaced by year's end (though 2012 and 2016 nominee John Gregg continues to travel and tweet).

4. Long retires as Senate torch passes: There have been just two Senate presidents pro tem since the early 1980s. Robert Garton was defeated for renomination in 2006, allowing the ascension of Sen. David Long later that year. Long adroitly held together the various ideological factions for a dozen years. But with Kenley and Hershman heading into the sunset, he announced he would retire last February, with Rodric Bray assuming his mantle, while Sens. Ryan Mishler and Travis Holdman pick up the finance portfolios. It completed the most comprehensive leadership remake in close to a generation.

5. Pence on Trump whirlwind: 
Nearly every aspect of President Trump's personal and professional life is under criminal or ethics investigation, from his campaign, transition team (which Pence headed) and his inaugural committee, to his family organization and foundation (which was ordered closed late this year). It is prompting speculation that some time in the next two years, we could be watching a "President Mike Pence." He would be the fourth Hoosier who lived here to do so, following the Harrisons and Abraham Lincoln. Pence has created a Zelig personality, hovering in the Oval Office with routine, but often very far away when controversy spikes. But Pence was in charge of the transition team when the convicted Mike Flynn was flirting with the Kremlin, and was with Trump at Bedminster the weekend before FBI Director James Comey was fired, which subsequently created Special Counsel Robert Mueller. While Pence has lawyered up, he apparently hasn't testified. With a report coming by mid-winter, Vice President Pence sits at a conspicuous station that could lead him to his ultimate dream.

6. Tariffs buffet Hoosier farmers, manufacturers: President Trump campaigned on the notion of imposing tariffs on the Chinese in order to convince them to trade with Western values. He had taken what U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski has described as the "shotgun" approach (rather than the scalpel). The result has been a tanking of soybean and other commodity prices, as well as costs to manufacturers using steel and aluminum. Hoosier farmers are hanging in with Trump (Mike Braun carried more than two dozen counties with between 65% and 75% pluralities).

7. The Curtis Hill saga: The Statehouse seemed to be a monolith of Republican power until July, when sexual harassment allegations surfaced against Attorney General Curtis Hill by Democratic State Rep. Mara Candeleria Reardon and three legislative aides. Special Prosecutor Dan Sigler investigated and declined to press any legal charges, but his press conference featured the four accusers. All four legislative caucus leaders, Gov. Eric Holcomb, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and Braun called for Hill to resign, but he refused, citing a lack of due process. The situation has been a standoff ever since, with Holcomb telling HPI on Dec. 14, "I won’t resolve it. Obviously, I spoke my mind. I haven’t changed my opinion one iota." It sets up speculation of a Republican challenger for Hill at the 2020 convention. Hill, meantime, is seeking a $5 million budget increase in the 2019 session, so we'll see where his standing is with legislators, many in no mood to impeach. 

8. Brooks, Walorski define “year of woman”: This was to be the "year of the woman" or the "Pink Wave." And there were close to a dozen female congressional candidates and more than 60 running for the General Assembly. But when the dust settled on Nov. 6, it was U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks and Jackie Walorski cruising to reelection, though they are just two of 13 female Republicans in the U.S. House. Most of the General Assembly hopefuls lost underfunded campaigns, with Reps. Lisa Beck and Chris Campbell winning (but knocking off Republican Reps. Sally Siegrist and Julie Olthoff), while Rep. Rita Fleming won an open seat.

9. Hogsett seeks second term: Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett finally announced for reelection after a year of moody headlines over record homicide rates and deteriorating roads. Hogsett pushed through a $120 million capital infrastructure plan, and will likely face either Councilman Jose Evans and Sen. Jim Merritt, who is expected to enter the race in January. Democratic mayors Tom Henry in Fort Wayne, John Hamilton in Bloomington, Tony Roswarski in Lafayette, Tom Broderick in Anderson, Karen Freeman-Wilson in Gary, Anthony Copeland in East Chicago are also expected to run again, while Hammond's Tom McDermott and Kokomo's Greg Goodnight have yet to reveal plans. McDermott is a potential gubernatorial candidate. Republican mayors seeking reelection include Evansville's Lloyd Winnecke, Terre Haute's Duke Bennett, Carmel's Jim Brainard, and Warsaw's Joe Thallamer.

10. Buttigieg prepares for White House run: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the kind of rising star whose next step would be a gubernatorial run in normal times. But with the Indiana Democratic Party in tatters, he is likely to launch a White House bid next month. He's one of the first openly gay mayors and is a Rhodes Scholar and Afghanistan war veteran. Some see this bid as a positioning for the ticket or a cabinet post, but with Barack Obama and Donald Trump winning what seemed to be impossible nominations in 2008 and 2016, Buttigieg will be worth watching in 2019.