Indiana Dems reflect on their shortcomings in the 2020 Election and their path to defeat (2020)
Heading into the 2020 general election, the Indiana Democratic Party (IDP) was optimistic about their chances of creating a “blue wave” in the state following their track record of success from the last few elections.
During the 2018 and 2019 state elections, the IDP made small— but morale increasing — gains throughout the state of Indiana. Primarily in the Indianapolis suburbs and more populated regions across the state at the local levels of government.
According to Ballotpedia, during the 2018 general election, the Republican Indiana State Senate supermajority was reduced from 41-9 to 40-10. While the Republican supermajority in the House of Representatives was reduced from 70-30 to 67-33.
These gains for the IDP were done in part by continuous messaging at the local level; as well as support from political action committees (PAC) such as Better Indiana. Better Indiana is a PAC whose goal is to help state and local democrats get elected to office throughout Indiana.
Better Indiana Treasurer David Anderson joined the committee following the 2016 elections after he decided that he wanted to be a part of changing Indiana’s political landscape.
“After the 2016 election and Trump taking office, I felt like I had to get involved,” Anderson said. “I felt like the best way I could do so was to get myself and others invested in our own state.”
Anderson went on to say that with the momentum gained from the 2018 general election the goal for the IDP was simple— break the Republican majority in the state's General Assembly.
However, this goal was nothing more than wishful thinking, as the IDP would come face-to-face with the harsh reality of Indiana’s electorate.
Following the results of the 2020 general election, the Republican Party not only secured the gubernatorial race for the fifth straight election, they also continued to further increase their control of the State House in both chambers.
According to Ballotpedia, in the House of Representatives, the chamber's Republican majority increased from 67-33 to 71-29. While in the Senate the chamber's Republican majority still held, even after the decrease from 40-10 to 38-11— with one vacancy left to fill.
As shown in this graph from Capital & Washington’s website, this effectively gives the Republican party their tenth straight trifecta in the state’s government stretching back to 2011. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers.
All the progress made by the IDP during the 2018 primary elections proved all for naught as what they worked towards was all wiped away with a decisive election in the state.
According to an article written by Adam Wren on Nov. 6, an IDP source —granted anonymity to speak freely— said the party has been led into a political wilderness and believes it needs to be rebuilt from the top to bottom.
For many Democrats throughout the state of Indiana, the question remains echoing throughout the party and its constituents— where did it all go wrong?
According to Indiana political historian Matthew Kochevar, you have to go back to the beginning of the modern political era in Indiana.
This era began in 2004 when Mitch Daniels, a former cabinet member during the George W. Bush administration, won the gubernatorial race for the state.
This began to tilt the power in the state towards the Republican Party as they began to chip away at the democratic control throughout the state. For Republicans however, this would not come without a few roadblocks.
During the 2008 general election, the Indiana electorate voted in favor of the Democratic nominee for President Barack Obama: while also voting for Republican incumbent Mitch Daniels in his re-election campaign for governor.
This resulted in the state splitting its vote among parties for presidential and gubernatorial candidates. Kochevar claims that for a state to do this is an anomaly in American politics.
“It’s very rare for a state to elect a Democrat for president and a Republican for governor,” Kochevar said. “It’s usually the other way around.”
Following the 2008 election cycle, with the Republican Party realizing that the IDP still had influence from the nation level, the Republicans began to strategize ways to remove that influence over voters.
Kochevar explains that the Republican Party began at the grassroots level and began to go after the exploits of the Obama presidency.
“The Republican party began organizing PACs to help their members get elected,” Kochevar said. “They went after rural dems and were able to flip over ten seats in the state house due to attacks on the Obama administration.”
Due to the success of these PACs and the messaging of the Republican party, they were able to finally take control of the Indiana General Assembly— giving them a trifecta in the state government.
This came at a perfect time for the Republican Party, as the state of Indiana redraws its congressional districts at the beginning of every decade following the census.
This allowed the Republican Party to draw districts in their favor— this is known as gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the practice of intending to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries.
This practice is not an unfamiliar one in the state of Indiana. Kochevar said that this is a problem that both parties have part taken in.
“Gerrymandering isn’t a new issue,” Kochevar said. “I was looking back at old newspaper headlines throughout the 70s-90s, and there were articles written about how the Republican Party complained about gerrymandering from the Democrats. So this is not a brand-new issue that either party is unaware of.”
With the new congressional districts following the 2010 elections, the Republican Party was then able to secure control of the state government for the next decade. Ensuring an advantage in upcoming elections as well as allowing them to enact policy as they please throughout the state of Indiana.
This brings Indiana to where it is today in 2020, with the Republican Party being at the forefront of Indiana politics without any challenge from political counterpart in the IDP.
For the IDP and its constituents, Anderson said this election was a compilation of a decade of failures and inability to break the Republican Party gridlock in the state.
“It was a frustrating election for us,” Anderson said. “We hoped to break the state house supermajority from the Republicans control— they only got stronger.”
Even in defeat, however, the IDP still finds a silver lining in all of this.
Although the Democrats lost ground in the house after making significant gains in the 2018 elections, they still found themselves making gains among Indiana voters.
“It was still a moral victory,” Anderson said. “There was a lot more competition in races. A Republican house district four years ago ran unopposed by Democrats. This election we ran a candidate and even though they lost— it wasn't by a large margin.”
Even with the IDP continuously gaining support from its constituents and more members of their party running for office— they are still coming up short during election time. Anderson believes this stems from intrusion of national politics.
“We fight bad messaging on the national level,” Anderson said. “The Democrat brand gets tarnished by things like defunding the police and socialism. We have an uphill battle working to fight off those stereotypes about the national party here in Indiana.”
The IDP has continued to struggle in separating their state party’s brand from that of the DNC, which Republicans in the state have used as fuel for its attacks on the IDP to scare away Indiana voters.
While most members of the IDP have struggled to break away from the national brand, a few have found a way to separate themselves— but all while sticking to the party’s core beliefs.
Indianapolis Marion County City-County Councillor Keith Potts is a member of the IDP and was elected to office in 2019. Potts was able to win in Washington Township— a historically Republican controlled district within the city of Indianapolis.
In order to win over his constituents, Potts had to change up the way he approached his campaigning.
“Smart policy doesn’t always translate to campaign season,” Potts said. “What we try to do is bring the conversation down to values; it’s easier to agree on values than policy. Once we get a valued based outcome, then we work to figure out how to get to a solution.”
Even in his victory, Potts realizes that his strategy is only part of the solution for bringing Democrats back to relevance in the state of Indiana.
“The biggest thing we need to do as a party is organize, organize, organize,” Potts said. “We need to have our message heard. Organizing on the ground by getting out and canvassing, talking with voters and fundraising.”
On top of overhauling their efforts to connect with voters throughout the state, Potts adds that the party needs to be more proactive in its approach of convincing voters to stay with the IDP.
“The key ingredient we need to focus on is maintaining efforts year-round,” Potts said. “We recruit for elections but don’t keep people on staff following them and that hurts our presence among our constituents.”
For now, the IDP will have to accept the damage done to their progress in making waves throughout the state legislature. As the party moves into a new decade, they will work to rebuild their platform and its message as they continue to set their sights towards their all-important goal— breaking the Republican trifecta in Indiana.