By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS  – As Indiana Democrats meet over the next several days for their pandemic-altered state convention, the party appears to be wandering the desert like Moses, virtually unable to win statewide. November will be the final election of this second decade of the 21st Century. Of the 19 statewide races of the past decade (including 2010), Indiana Democrats are just 2-17, or winning just 11%.

The gubernatorial nominee, Dr. Woody Myers, reported $376,692 in total contributions on his April 15 pre-primary report, and a mere $22,155 cash on hand, and no recent large donations since (compared to $7.1 million for Gov. Eric Holcomb’s reelection committee). The party controls around 20% of county offices (around 10% of county commissioners), two of 11 federal seats, none of the six Statehouse constitutional offices, and has been mired in super-minority status in the General Assembly since 2014.

Arguably its most conspicuous rising star, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, opted for the 2020 presidential race and could be destined for a cabinet post in a possible Biden administration. Another potential statewide hopeful, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., lost in the 1st CD primary last week. Former lieutenant governor nominee Christina Hale has raised more than $1 million in a 5th CD showdown with State Sen. Victoria Spartz, but even if she wins, faces redistricting where she is likely to end up in a CD with U.S. Rep. Andre Carson.

Epitomizing this legacy of futility, Democratic Chairman John Zody sought the open SD40 seat in the June 2 primary, and lost to Shelli Yoder 80% to 17.6%. But long-time Democratic operative Jeff Harris told HPI that building blocks are now in place with the Emerging Leaders and Hoosier Women Forward programs now recruiting and training young people for office. “That will bear fruit down the road,” Harris said.

The two Democratic statewide wins both came in 2012, when Joe Donnelly won the U.S. Senate seat after Sen. Richard Lugar was defeated in the Republican primary by Treasurer Richard Mourdock, and Glenda Ritz upset controversial Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. Both Donnelly and Ritz lost their reelection bids in 2016 and 2018.

Of the six constitutional statewide offices, Indiana Democrats have been competitive on two fronts, governor and superintendent of public instruction, with John Gregg and Glenda Ritz polling 46% while going 1-3 in those races. The superintendent position becomes a gubernatorial appointed position in 2021.

In U.S. Senate races, the party is averaging just 45% of the vote. And the further down ballot you go, the less competitive Democrats become, with 2018 treasurer nominee John Aguilera cresting at 41.4%. Most of these Democratic nominees, including 2020 Democratic presidential phenom Pete Buttigieg in 2010, poll around 37%.

In his 2019 book, “Shortest Way Home,” Mayor Buttigieg described his 2010 race against Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who the previous year had sought a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to block the sale of Chrysler as part of the auto industry bailout that began under Republican President George W. Bush and was completed by Democratic President Barack Obama. Had Mourdock prevailed, it would have eliminated thousands of Indiana jobs and millions of dollars in personal and corporate income revenues for the state.

“When I investigated who was looking to run against him from the Democratic side, the answer was no one,” Buttigieg wrote. “I was surprised, I knew down-ticket races, especially for Democrats in Indiana, were thankless, difficult and hard to recruit for. But a candidate as extreme as Mourdock seemed beatable, at least if there were a favorable national atmosphere, a flawless campaign and a little bit of luck. Surely someone would take him on, in the name of the people and communities who could have been devastated by his adventure.”

National trends helped make Buttigieg part of the “37% Club.”

“Democratic members of Congress were still licking their wounds from the tongue-lashings they got in town halls across America over the summer of Tea Party rage, heaped with abuse from voters who had been led to believe that the health care bill amounted to red socialism, complete with ‘death panels’ and all manner of evil,” Buttigieg said of the 2010 election cycle. “This was not good news for me. In a state like ours, a down-ticket Democrat stood a chance of winning only under the best of circumstances, and these were clearly not going to be the best of circumstances.”

This cycle is shaping up to be potentially more fertile for Democrats nationally. President Trump has been widely panned over his handling of the pandemic, with 55% disapproving in an NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll released on Sunday. Some 80% felt the nation was “spiraling out of control.” A CNN/SRS survey on Monday revealed Trump’s approve/disapprove at 38/57% and Biden had a huge 55-41% lead. Only 43% approved President Trump’s handling of the pandemic. On the economy, NBC/WSJ revealed 77% felt the economy was either “poor” or “only fair.” In the NBC/WSJ poll, Democrats held a 51-40% congressional generic lead. CNN’s last poll prior to the 2018 election showed Democrats with a 53% to 42% edge on the generic ballot question and Democrats netted 40 seats and retook the majority days later. In the 2010 midterms, the last CNN poll showed Republicans with a 6-point lead and they won 63 seats and the House majority.

In 2019, polls in Indiana showed Hoosiers mixed on Trump’s approval, with 48/46% approve/disapprove in an August NBC/Marist Poll, and a 47% split in a Gravis Poll. Morning Consult put Trump’s approve/disapprove in Indiana at 53/44% in February 2020, coming after his Senate impeachment acquittal but before the pandemic and George Floyd fallout.

Tallian v. Weinzapfel

In the convention’s lone contested race, for attorney general, former Evansville mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel had a beginning balance of $609,310, raised $178,636 and had an ending cash balance of $662,724. He has received $30,000 ($10,000 each) from Jeffrey Justice of Evansville, the Northern Indiana Operators Joint Labor Management PAC and the IN KY OH Regional Council of Carpenters.

State Sen. Karen Tallin had a beginning balance of $144,159, contributions of $10,198 and an April 15 pre-primary ending balance of $101,528. Major donations came from James McKamey of Portage ($15,000); $80,000 from her Senate campaign committee; and $25,000 from the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. She said that money won’t be a debilitating factor for the fall. “There’s a lot of money sitting on the sidelines until somebody wins,” she said of the nomination.

“We need to talk about the party,” Tallian told HPI on Tuesday. “We need to turn protesters into voters.”

She recalled the Watergate era “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973 when President Nixon fired Attorney General Elliott Richardson and deputy AG Bill Ruckelshaus (a former Indiana state senator). “I’m doing that because it was the first time in my life I was afraid for American democracy. It was the first time we had one desperate man threaten the entire democratic structure.” Now, Tallian said, “There’s a lot at stake.”

She believes she has a good shot at winning the general election race, whether it’s against Attorney General Curtis Hill, Todd Rokita, Decatur Prosecutor Nate Harter, or John Westercamp. “We did an informed poll and it showed myself at least 7% ahead of every Republican man,” Tallian said. “Curtis Hill’s misbehavior is one thing, but it was the Obamacare lawsuits that I just decided somebody had to step up.”

Tallian said that because of her pro-marijuana reform stance, Indiana Libertarians won’t field a candidate for attorney general. “That’s a 2% to 5% advantage for us,” she said. “Part of this election will be decided on marijuana, policing and women’s issues.” She added, “It takes fortitude to be a woman in the Senate for 15 years. I have been in the middle of the fight. I know all these issues, I’ve defined all of the issues.

“I think I’m the liberal Democrat that Republicans fear.”  

Weinzapfel on changed race dynamics

When Jonathan Weinzapfel entered the race in December, he believed the main issue would be Curtis Hill. “What started off as a race about Curtis Hill’s ethical issues and his efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act has become much more than that,” Weinzapfel told HPI on Tuesday. “Over the past two months we’ve been in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd. We’ve had other issues that have surfaced. The dynamics have changed since I entered the race in early December. It provides an opportunity for a much broader discussion that a candidate for attorney general can be involved with in what Indiana should look like; how we can create an Indiana more fair and just society.

“This is an environment where people are concerned about their livelihood, they’re concerned about their families, loved ones in nursing homes, their kids going back to school in August and are they going to be safe,” he explained. “What’s the educational system going to look like? Am I going to be safe at work? These are some very existential challenges facing a lot of Hoosier families that are going to be outlined in this campaign. In addition to the ramifications of George Floyd’s murder and how do we reform our criminal justice system and our policing tactics here in Indiana to create a safer and more just society, there are going to be issues at the forefront that are going to lend independent reviews of voters.”

Weinzapfel said he’s made about a thousand calls to delegates, with the list finalized last Friday. “We’ve done everything,” he said. “We’ve had field staff working with county chairs, contacting delegates themselves, I’ve made about a thousand calls to delegates personally, along with direct mail, email, text messages. We feel good about it.

“One issue is making sure they know who I am as a legislator, mayor of Evansville, and chancellor of the Ivy Tech Evansville campus,” Weinzapfel continued. “It’s also a discussion about how I’m in the best position to represent the Democratic Party. It’s a focus on issues.”

As for the futility of statewide Democrats over the past decade, Weinzapfel said, “It would help if the presidential race in Indiana is competitive. I don’t think Joe Biden needs to win in order for down ballot Democrats to be successful, but it helps if the race is close. I haven’t seen any recent polling, but I would suspect it isn’t the 19% gap for Donald Trump like it was in 2016. I think the dynamics have changed pretty dramatically.”

Another change has been the demise of local media and President Trump’s domination over cable news TV networks. “You recall the good old days, when you were a candidate for Congress or statewide office, you would stop at the county seat because they would have their own local newspaper,” he said. “You would sit for interviews. Those were very important outlets. Those have largely gone by the wayside. You now have to raise money to communicate directly through mail, or TV, but probably more importantly, via social media.”

Weinzapfel added, “I have a proven track record as a fundraiser. I’ve run against Republicans in the past and won in a very competitive area of the state. But more importantly I think my experience and background ... that’s a background that’s going to be pretty appealing to moderate Republicans and independents. I’ve been someone who has had to be held accountable every single day, has had to involve a lot of different people from a lot of different perspectives with different political backgrounds when seeking input, building consensus and finding solutions to the challenges we face. That’s the skillset I want to bring to the office of attorney general.”

If the winner of the nomination prevails in November, that candidate becomes the 2024 gubernatorial frontrunner. Weinzapfel has more money and an long endorsement list. Tallian has been endorsed by LG nominee Linda Lawson. “What a windfall about what we’ve got to Karen Tallian,” Lawson said. “She’s a tiger. She goes after everything.” HPI Convention Horse Race Status: Leans Weinzapfel.

Epilogue

Pete Buttigieg wrote that “In the final days” of his 2010 experience, “the obscurity of our race added to a sense of doom.” Instead of the tailwind Democrats face today because of the pandemic response and the Great Depression-level jobless stats that have created an opening this cycle, he faced the headwinds of President Obama’s first mid-term election, the Tea Party movement and negative reaction in Indiana to Obamacare. “I had crisscrossed the state for months generated mostly positive press coverage, made friends in every corner of the Indiana and raised more money than any candidate for this office in years, and yet we finished with less than 40% of the vote,” he wrote in his book, more than a year before he won the Iowa presidential caucuses. “The very first time I put my name on a ballot for office, fully one million people had voted for the other guy.”

The 37% loss has become the norm for down ballot Hoosier Democrats. In 2012, good luck (Mourdock’s last debate fiasco) sent Joe Donnelly to the U.S. Senate and Glenda Ritz to the Statehouse. Four years later, it was bad luck when vulnerable Gov. Mike Pence joined the Donald Trump presidential ticket, which forged a 19% plurality that swamped John Gregg and Supt. Ritz.

Harris summed up what Hoosier Democrats need to break out of that 37% funk and an 11% winning percentage. “It takes luck and timing,” he said.

Convention lineup

On Friday evening, Cheri Bustos, Illinois congresswoman and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will keynote the party’s Hoosier Hospitality Dinner and on Saturday, Democratic state delegates will hear a special message from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The virtual speaking program will begin at 5:30 p.m. (ET) Friday. Rep. Bustos and Chairman Zody will sit down for a virtual fireside chat about how Hoosier Democrats can make progress in 2020. Speakers and special messages will include Zody, lieutenant governor nominee Linda Lawson; Dr. Woody Myers; House Leader Phil GiaQuinta; Senate Leader Tim Lanane; Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett; U.S. Rep. André Carson and Rep. Bustos (IL-17).

On Saturday, nearly 2,500 Democratic delegates will gather online to conduct the convention virtually and hear from Gov. Whitmer and from the 2020 statewide ticket. The general session will be gaveled to order at 2:30 p.m. Other speakers will include Sen. Tallian, Mayor Weinzapfel, Lawson and Myers.