By BRIAN A. HOWEY

TRAFALGAR – In a harvested cornfield near here, there was a 10- by 10-foot section of the crop still standing. There was a sign posted nearby, declaring this a “Joe Biden corn maze.” The implication being that President Biden is senile and controlled by his deep state handlers.

This is a typical public demonstration in rural Indiana, where pandemic masking is disdained and school board meetings are the new political frontier. While Indiana Democrats unveiled their “Small Town Tour,” designed, as future candidate Melanie Wright said in Cicero, to show that Democrats don’t “have horns coming from our heads,” what they face in addition to steep, uphill legislative and congressional maps is a renewed culture war.

State Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, added at Cicero, “More than $250 million in broadband and $100 million for mental health programs were delivered to Indiana because of the American Rescue Plan, including our rural communities. Democrats are sick and tired of the culture wars. The Republicans share this with the Hoosiers because they only care about the next election.”

The super minority party may want to talk policy, but Hoosier Republicans are girding for more culture wars. Look no further than Attorney General Todd Rokita’s taxpayer financed “Rokita Review” newsletter sent out on All Saints Day.

The “Review” noted that Rokita led an 18-state amicus brief supporting the Texas law, which prohibits providers from performing abortions once they can detect a fetal heartbeat. Rokita is also “leading a 17-state effort to deter the Biden administration from threatening parents who express their views to school officials on issues regarding their children’s education.” Rokita stated “his concerns in an Oct. 18 letter to President Joe Biden and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. On Oct. 4, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memorandum decrying a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”

And Rokita called on Biden to “reconsider and immediately reverse his plan to force many private-sector companies to require workers to either get COVID-19 vaccinations, submit to weekly testing or potentially lose their jobs.” In a multi-state letter to President Biden, Rokita and 23 other attorneys general explain that the Biden administration’s “disastrous and counterproductive” plan amounts to an illegal use of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Speaking in Lafayette on Tuesday, Rokita told  WLFI-TV, “The Department of Justice saying they are going to monitor that trying to intimidate them from speaking is absolutely wrong. That’s why I led a 17-state coalition of attorneys general pushing Merrick Garland and Joe Biden and everyone else back saying, ‘Stay in your lane, guys, you’re overreaching enough on so many issues you are not going to do it here.’” 

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Mike Braun denounced President Biden’s vaccine mandate, describing it as a coming “wallop” on small businesses.

“Public schools and farmers are the heartbeat of rural communities and the backbone of Indiana itself, and Democrats are set to hold real conversations about how we are delivering solutions to the most-pressing problems facing Hoosier families in Indiana’s small towns,” said Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl at an event in North Vernon. “Democrats have delivered since Day One of Joe Biden’s presidency, and we are ready to fan out across the state to share with families how policies like the American Rescue Plan have fully funded Indiana’s public schools and expanded broadband internet access. Democrats are creating a better future for Hoosier families in rural America, while the other side appears to prioritize only extreme partisanship and division, a contrast we’ll campaign on into the 2022 elections.”

According to the LaGrange News-Sun, former congresswoman Jill Long Thompson said she believes the county is at a crossroads right now and federal programs like the American Rescue Plan have already played an important role in bringing new investment in rural America. “To be our strongest, we have to invest  both in our people, and our infrastructure,” she said. “We have the larget economy in the world and the most productive workforce in the world. And rural communities are essential to our economic and social wellbeing.”

Long Thompson added that the work being done in rural communities across the county affects nearly everyone in the county. “We’re going to be spending $250 million in broadband in rural communities. In order to survive as farmers, the need for broadband is essential,” Sen. Shelli Yoder said. “That investment is going to help our farmers and members of the Ag community survive.”

At Cicero, Jennifer McCormick appeared. “About 80% of poverty falls in rural areas. That’s directly tied to the Indiana Republican Party’s record on education. That’s the situation Indiana is in. It’s a perfect storm from a decade of poor policy,” McCormick said (Hamilton County Reporter). “It’s not a good idea to make school board races partisan. But Republicans are making it a ‘priority bill’. It’s up to us to tell our neighbors about what’s going on at the Statehouse.”

U.S. Senate

McDermott campaign announces 2 hires

Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott’s Democratic U.S. Senate campaign hired two staffers: Arielle Brandy as its director of voter engagement and Joseph Shepard as rural outreach director. “Arielle’s experience with several campaigns including Pete for America most recently has made her a very sought after staffer. “We are so excited to have Arielle on board with our campaign,” said McDermott. “Arielle brings the energy we will need to get out the vote in 2022 and her organizing skills will ensure my name is on the ballot next year.”

Congress

NRCC targets Rep. Mrvan

The party organization that works to elect Republicans to the U.S. House has added U.S. Rep. Frank J. Mrvan, D-Highland, to the list of 70 Democratic congressmen it’s targeting for defeat in 2022 (Carden, NWI Times). U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the Republican electoral victories Tuesday in Virginia, along with polls showing Republican chances to retake the House are improving, spurred the NRCC to expand its original list of 57 targeted candidates. “In a cycle like this, no Democrat is safe,” Emmer said. “Voters are rejecting Democrat policies that have caused massive price increases, opened our borders, and spurred a nationwide crime wave.” Mrvan is the only Indiana Democrat being targeted by the NRCC. Republicans consider Mrvan to potentially be vulnerable because Mrvan won last year with only 56% of the vote, compared to the 65% of district voters who supported former U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, in 2018. In addition, records show Democrat Joe Biden only won Mrvan’s 1st Congressional District by an 8.8% margin over Republican Donald Trump in 2020, a drop from the 12.6% margin Democrat Hillary Clinton had over Trump in 2016 – suggesting Northwest Indiana may be trending Republican. So far, two Republicans have filed to run in the May 2022 primary election: Jennifer-Ruth Green, of Crown Point, an Air Force Reserve member and chief information officer for the Indiana Air National Guard; and Tom Madden of Valparaiso.

Statewides

Auditor: Klutz seeks reelection

Auditor of State Tera Klutz announced her bid for reelection Tuesday surrounded by supporters at an event in Indianapolis. Klutz, the first CPA to hold the position of auditor, is seeking her second full term and will be on the ballot in November 2022. “I’m excited to launch our campaign for another term in the auditor’s office. We’ve had great success modernizing and streamlining the office to better serve Hoosiers, but there is still more work to be done. I’m asking Hoosiers to trust our team with another four years and let us keep delivering the results taxpayers have come to expect from our team,” Klutz said. Delegates to the 2022 Indiana Republican Convention will vote on the nominee for auditor, with the winner being on the ballot for the General Election in November. In 2018, Klutz was unanimously nominated and cruised to a 15-point victory in the general election that November.

Hill eyes future campaign

Indiana’s embattled former attorney general Curtis Hill says he’s considering a future run for political office (Indiana Public Media). But, speaking at an event in Noblesville about race, education and COVID restrictions,  Hill declined to specify a particular race he is eyeing.  “I’ve been firmly implanted in the concept of public service since I was a prosecuting attorney from years before,” Hill said. “So, I anticipate continuing that process.” Hill continued he would “consider something down the road at the right time.” The former AG’s term ended last year when he was defeated in the Republican primary by the state’s current Attorney General Todd Rokita.

General Assembly

SD26: Wright may shift from 5th CD race

Former state Rep. Melanie Wright, who announced on Facebook earlier this month that she is running for Indiana’s 5th Congressional District, told IndyStar she’s considering running for state Senate District 26 instead. That district was opened up after lawmakers drew Sen. Mike Gaskill, R-Pendleton, into District 25 with Anderson Democrat Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.

SD46 (current): Grooms resigns seat

State Sen. Ron Grooms had already announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2022, but the Jeffersonville Republican has decided to end his term a year early, in a move that appears to be opening the door for Kevin Boehnlein to take a seat in the Senate. Grooms will step down from his District 46 seat on Nov. 2 (Suddeath, News & Tribune). Boehnlein told Howey Politics Indiana he will be a candidate in that caucus, while Floyd County Commissioner Shawn Carruthers questioned the caucus process. “It’s been an incredible privilege serving the people of Senate District 46 for the last 10-plus years,” Grooms said in a statement issued Thursday morning.  “I’ve had the distinct honor to work with a number of outstanding legislators who have worked tirelessly to move Indiana forward. Although I will miss the Statehouse, I look forward to pursuing new opportunities, spending more time with family, playing a bit more golf and relaxing with a good book. I leave knowing that I did my job and made a difference in my community.” 

Moon seeks SD46 caucus; challenge Clere

Already planning to run for the District 72 state House seat, Floyd County Republican Charlie Moon confirmed Friday that he will also seek a caucus appointment to serve the remainder of State Sen. Ron Grooms’ term (Howey Politics Indiana). Grooms’ announced Friday he would resign on Nov. 2, setting up a Nov. 15 caucus. Floyd County businessman Kevin Boenhlein had announced for SD46 before it moved north to Indianapolis in redistricting. Upon Thursday’s announcement of Grooms’ early retirement, Boehnlein confirmed he will seek the caucus appointment to fill the vacancy. Floyd County Commissioner Shawn Carruthers said he will not enter the caucus and, like Moon, questioned the timing of Grooms’ retirement. “Voters are rightfully suspicious of political favors and maneuvers like this and many see these caucuses as rigged,” Carruthers said Thursday (News & Tribune). “I share their concerns about this approach and I won’t be a candidate for the caucus election.” Moon said Friday he remains committed to seeking the Republican nomination for the House District 72 seat, which is held by Rep. Ed Clere. He emphasized he’s entering the Senate District 46 race because he believes there should be more than just one candidate, especially since Boehnlein was already endorsed by Grooms. “I have no special interests, no promises that have been made. I’m doing it more out of a civic duty,” Moon said. “Unfortunately, there appears to be a political game that’s being played.”

SD46 (new): Councilor Jones announces

Indianapolis City-County Councillor Kristin Jones filed paperwork to become a Democratic candidate for SD46. A longtime resident of West Indy, Jones was first elected to the council in 2019.  Since taking office, and in her years of service in the community before her election, Jones has earned a reputation as an advocate of working families, fair wages and improving the quality of life in the neighborhoods. “While the city is making great strides, and I am proud of the work we have done on the council, all too often we’ve been hamstrung by bad decisions that come from the Statehouse,” said Jones. “That’s why I am running. I want to take my on-the-ground experiences working in this community to the State Senate, where I can be a voice for working families and common sense policies that benefit us all.” A member of AFSCME Local 725 and wife of a union auto worker, Jones has strong ties to organized labor, including participating in the Indiana State AFL-CIO’s “Path to Power” program. “We are so proud of Kristin,” said Indiana State AFL-CIO President Brett Voorhies. “Not only is she a responsive and hardworking city-county councillor, she’s also a strong and reliable advocate for all working people. We look forward to doing all we can to see her elected to the State Senate.” Jones will officially kick off her campaign with an event at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 17 at the United Steelworkers Local 1999, 218 S. Addison St. 

HD45: Borders ‘shocked’ by Ellington

State Rep. Bruce Borders isn’t going down without a fight. Borders, the longtime Republican representative for HD45, ran unopposed in the 2020 general election. He’ll have an unexpected primary challenger in 2022, fellow Republican Rep. Jeff Ellington (Legan, Indiana Public Media). “I was shocked about it, to be honest with you,” Borders said over the phone from his insurance office in Jasonville. “I mean, he never approached me about it.” Ellington announced last week he will be moving from his home south of Bloomington west to Bloomfield and intends to run to represent the 45th District. Borders said he dialed up Ellington a few days before the announcement to confirm the rumors he was hearing were true. “I just called him I said, ‘Jeff, I’ve heard this (from other legislators).’ And he was apprehensive about talking about it. And then he said, ‘Yeah, we’re looking at doing that,’” Borders said. Ellington, who declined a phone interview in favor of answering emailed questions, said the move to Bloomfield had been planned since he bought an old mill there in 2018.

HD54: Mills to seek Saunders’ seat

Republican Betsy Mills of rural Middletown has filed to establish an exploratory committee. The move comes after State Rep. Tom Saunders announced on Sept. 24 he will not seek reelection. “I am excited to join the ranks of great leaders our region has sent to Indianapolis, and I am prepared to advocate for strong Republican values like limited government and economic opportunities in the cities, towns, and rural areas of our district,” Mills said. “I’d like to sincerely thank Rep. Saunders for his many decades of public service in Henry County and East Central Indiana,” Mills said. “Tom has always fought hard for his constituents, and I hope to emulate him in that way.” Mills currently serves as an at-large member of the Henry County Council. “My priorities for our district are straightforward; I want us to play to our strengths and continue to build in areas that will shine a light on our region,” Mills said. Steve Thompson will manage Mills’s campaign.

HD62: Githens to seek Democrat nod

Monroe County Commissioner Penny Githens announced she will run for the District 62 seat in the Indiana House of Representatives next year (Abshier, Indiana Public Media). The Monroe County Democratic party nominated Githens to fill a vacancy on the board of commissioners in 2019. She won reelection in 2020, and her term expires in 2024. She said she will continue serving as a county commissioner while running for state office. “I realize that there are things I really care deeply about that I can’t address as a county commissioner,” Githens said. “Some of the things we try to address as county commissioners really should be addressed at a regional or state level.” For example, Githens said a lot of unhoused people in Monroe County come from surrounding areas. A lot of them suffer from mental illness and substance abuse disorders. “We’re not providing the kind of treatment that’s necessary,” Githens said. “And so, they end up either in our jails and prisons or on the street, and that doesn’t seem like the humane way to treat people.” Githens ran for HD60 in 2016 and 2018, losing both times to State Rep. Peggy Mayfield (R-Martinsville). She said the new Indiana legislative maps that moved her out of that district motivated her to run for office again. “The numbers in the redrawn 62, the numbers are there,” Githens said. “This is a seat that the Democrats could take back.” 

HD71: Rep. Fleming to seek reelection

State Rep. Rita Fleming will be running for reelection next year to represent District 71. Fleming, a Democrat, said she plans to continue initiatives she has been working on with the state, some that will impact health care, primarily focusing on children. She said she’ll call it the “year of the child.” “I’m going to have a lot of emphasis on the well-being of children and families,” Fleming said (News & Tribune). Fleming first took her position in 2018, beating Republican Matt Owen for the House seat. She won again in 2020, running unopposed. Scott Hawkins, a Jeffersonville City Council member, is the only candidate to announce for the Republican primary. Fleming said one of her bills, which allows pharmacists to prescribe and dispense birth control after a careful interview and blood pressure check, has garnered a lot of interest and momentum. “To date I believe almost 30 states have adopted this bill, and it has actually been passed in several Republican-dominated legislatures. So, I think that this really has a good chance of getting attention this year and passing, and it truly will greatly impact the well-being of mothers and babies in our state,” Fleming said.

HD82: Miller announces third bid

After losing twice for a state house seat, a Fort Wayne native is trying again (WANE-TV). Democrat Kyle Miller announced his bid for Indiana State Representative for District 82 at Deer Park Irish Pub in front of a crowd of supporters. He previously ran twice in 2018 and 2020 but narrowly lost to Republican Martin Carbaugh. After the most recent redistricting, he and Carbaugh will now be in different districts. “I think that it largely comes down to making sure families have what they need to thrive. Whether that’s paid family and medical leave, whether that’s driving down the cost of prescription healthcare or driving down the cost of childcare. Families just want to know that they’re going to be protected and able to thrive in our community, and I think those are the things that were pushing in this campaign,” Miller said.

HD93: Turner won’t challenge Rep. Jacob

Conservative community leader Robert Turner has announced that he is dropping out of the HD93 race, citing family health reasons for his exit. Turner had planned to challenge State Rep. John Jacob. Former legislator and Marion County Republican chair Cindy Kirchhofer is considering a challenge to Rep. Jacob. “After prayerful consideration and lengthy, meaningful discussions with my family, I have determined that leaving the race at this time is the right move due to private family-health issues that have recently arisen,” said Turner.