Former Democrat lieutenant governor nominee Christina Hale.
Former Democrat lieutenant governor nominee Christina Hale.

WASHINGTON – Hoosier Democrats are at a crossroads. Republicans dominate the state’s politics. The GOP holds every statewide office, overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly, and seven of nine congressional seats.  

When the next gubernatorial election rolls around in 2024, Republicans will have held the office for 20 uninterrupted years.  Democrats must start winning elections if they want to avoid historic irrelevance in the state. 

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Democrats won a majority of House seats in 1990 and 2000, giving them an edge in redistricting. After Tim Roemer won the South Bend area congressional seat in 1990, Democrats held eight of Indiana’s 10 congressional seats. More recently, Barack Obama carried Indiana in 2008. And, Democrats Joe Donnelly and Glenda Ritz won statewide races in 2012. 

But today Hoosiers Democrats find themselves with virtually no visibility in the state. Not since the early 1980s have they been so completely shut out of participating in Indiana’s political decisions. Leading into the 1982 midterms, Republicans had gerrymandered the congressional districts to limit Democrats to no more than three seats out of 10. Ronald Reagan had just won the White House and conservatives were pushing their agenda nationally. Prospects for a Democratic resurgence in Indiana looked bleak. 

Over the next decade or so, however, Hoosier Democrats against odds picked up four congressional seats drawn for Republicans as well as winning statewide elections for Auditor (Otis Cox in 1982), Secretary of State (Joe Hogsett in 1990) and Attorney General (Pam Carter in 1992 and Jeff Modisett in 1996). Running on change and ending 20 years of one-party rule in 1988, the youthful, telegenic Evan Bayh swept past highly regarded Lt. Gov, John Mutz to capture the governorship. It took Republicans 16 years – until 2004 – to win it back. Over time, Republicans would win back the four congressional seats that it had lost in the 1980s as well as the 9th district where Todd Young defeated Baron Hill in 2010.  

The challenge Hoosier Democrats face in regaining control is much more daunting than 40 years ago. Republicans have methodically turned Indiana into a one-party state. Using sophisticated technology, they have gerrymandered General Assembly and congressional districts more tightly than ever. The Republican war on unions, led in Indiana by Mitch Daniels and funded by national right-wing groups, has largely succeeded. Unions had been the source of funds and organizational muscle for Democrats. Indiana Republicans accurately concluded that if unions can be destroyed it means Democrats will become less competitive come election-time. Daniels’ attack on unions began on his first day in office when he banned collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers through an executive order. It culminated with the passage of a “right to work” law which Daniels signed into law in 2012.

In addition, the death of political journalism in Indiana has meant limited or no accountability for those in power. In the late 1980s, there were 44 credentialed journalists at the State House covering the General Assembly and the Robert Orr administration. Today there are just seven. The decline of aggressive political journalism in Indiana has given politicians a free pass to do anything they want irrespective of public opinion. When Bayh first ran, voters were ready for change because Republican corruption had been exposed, most notably in the license branch. Now political corruption and favoritism go unnoticed and unchecked.

Unfortunately, the national brand of the Democratic Party has been of little help to Hoosier Democrats. The Indiana Democratic Party’s new state chair, Mike Schmuhl, who directed former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, including a first place finish in the Iowa Caucus, hopes to change the Democratic Party’s image in Indiana. Taking his cues from Buttigieg, Schmuhl says one of the Democrats’ problems is that they stopped showing up everywhere and stopped championing issues that resonate with every day midwestern voters.  Hoosier voters have felt left out and forgotten by Democrats, explaining in part Donald Trump’s appeal. As a result, Schmuhl has been conducting statewide tours to discuss jobs and the American Rescue Plan, among other issues. Schmuhl has already visited two-thirds of Indiana’s counties since taking over as Chair earlier in the year.

An open seat is usually an opportunity for the party out-of-power to at least compete. But three years out from the next gubernatorial election, there are few signs that Democrats are ready to compete. Elections are first and foremost about candidates. An Evan Bayh comes along once a generation if that often. There are no obvious Democratic frontrunners for 2024.  

Buttigieg would be a strong candidate but has made it clear his interest is on the national level with another possible presidential run. Joe Donnelly has proven statewide appeal but President Biden has just nominated Donnelly to be ambassador to the Vatican. Joe Hogsett has name recognition as Indianapolis’ mayor but would have difficulty selling himself as a candidate of change after more than 30 years on the scene. 

Besides, Hogsett knows first-hand the vulnerabilities an Indianapolis mayor brings to a statewide campaign having defeated Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut in 1990 with relentless attacks on Hudnut’s record. Two state senators are mentioned as having statewide potential – Eddie Melton of Merrillville and Shelli Yoder of Bloomington. Both are hardworking legislators with attractive personal stories. Yoder, in particular, would make for a terrific statewide candidate. It is uncertain whether she would be willing to forgo almost certain reelection for a statewide run – either for governor or U.S. Senate in 2024.

Competing in 2024 starts with the 2022 elections. Democrats need to find a way to hold Republican Senator Todd Young accountable for votes that have hurt working Hoosiers. The Secretary of State race is effectively an open seat campaign. Connie Lawson, who had served on Donald Trump’s discredited Voter Fraud Commission, retired from the post before her term expired to give the governor an opportunity to appoint her successor – Holli Sullivan, who is virtually unknown. At a time when Republicans are revolting against democracy, there is an excellent opportunity for a young, aggressive Democrat to try to replicate Joe Hogsett’s win from three decades ago.  

The 5th CD where Victoria Spartz defeated Christina Hale by a margin of 50% to 46% in 2020 also provides Democratic opportunity. But Republicans eliminated the Marion County and therefore Democratic portion of the 5th putting it into the district held by André Carson. Former state representative Melanie Wright announced this week she will take on Spartz, a close associate of Marjorie Taylor Greene the Georgia QAnon congresswoman. Hoosier Democrats have had success winning congressional seats drawn for Republicans in low turnout off-year elections. Wright will have to build a strong grassroots campaign and paint Spartz as way out of the mainstream to bring over moderate and independent minded voters in a district drawn to protect the Republican.

If a quality candidate is the starting point for a winning campaign, message provides the context and ability to persuade.  

Democratic resurgence in the 1980s and ‘90s was based on a message of change, fiscal responsibility and putting an end to the insider deals and corruption that cost Hoosier taxpayers. Democrats would be prudent to adopt that message in 2022 and 2024. Democrats must also effectively communicate how much has eroded in Indiana since Republicans took over in 2004. Indiana has fallen behind in virtually important category under Republicans from education to health care to child welfare to housing. In addition, Indiana’s ethical rules are among the most lax in the nation and leave governmental officials and agencies vulnerable to charges of conflicts of interest, favoritism and corruption. 

Democrats can write a come-back story in 2022 and 2024. But it will require good candidates to step forward and aggressiveness in pushing an effective, winning message. 

Chris Sautter is a Washington based political consultant.