Opinion and Forefront

SHELLA: Indiana Democrats can blame Obama

January 8, 2011

Jim ShellaI was in Kokomo one day in October doing a story on one of the more interesting battles for a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Incumbent Democrat Ron Herrell was being challenged by Republican Mike Karickhoff in a big money battle for that part-time elected post.

When I caught up with Herrell at the Howard County Democratic headquarters on the courthouse square, he agreed to do an on-camera interview about the race, and we decided together that it would be conducted with the two of us standing up in the middle of the room. That way, Herrell’s face was lit by sunlight coming through a large window facing the center of town.

That’s when I witnessed what I believe was the defining moment of the 2010 campaign. A Herrell campaign adviser became aware that an Obama/Biden sign, a leftover of the successful Democratic campaign in 2008, was visible over Herrell’s shoulder.

The adviser called for a delay. He didn’t request a change in positioning so the Obama placard wouldn’t appear. Rather, he crossed the room and took down the Obama reminder. Herrell eventually lost, anyway.

That’s the primary lesson of the 2010 campaign. Democrats couldn’t get away from Barack Obama. The national mood fueled by frustration over high unemployment and the continued recession, along with opposition to health care reform, carried Mike Karickhoff into office. He arrived at the Statehouse along with enough Republicans to give the GOP a 12-seat gain and a 60-40 majority in the Indiana House where they trailed Democrats 52-48 last year.

Never mind that Obama carried Indiana in 2008, becoming the first Democrat running for president to do so since LBJ in 1964. Never mind that Obama campaigned in Kokomo in 2008 to a roaring crowd at a town hall meeting at the high school.

The WISH-TV Channel 8 Indiana 2010 Election Poll showed Obama with a paltry 38-percent approval rating in the days before the election. 2008 was forgotten.

There were other factors, of course. Karickhoff, like all the freshmen Republicans now at the Statehouse, benefited from support from Aiming Higher, the political action committee operated by Gov. Mitch Daniels. Karickhoff appeared in one of the cookie-cutter TV ads produced by Aiming Higher promising a new “low tax majority.” Herrell was also likely hurt by the absence of then-Sen. Evan Bayh at the top of the Democratic ticket.

But we were in Kokomo on that October day because Karickhoff was the target of the best TV spot of the campaign, an imitation movie trailer that labeled him “Tax Hike Mike, coming soon to Kokomo.” In the end, it didn’t matter. Obama’s policies did.

Now at the Statehouse, Karickhoff and the other Republicans are engaged in an intense session of the General Assembly that will determine whether they establish a long-term GOP majority or simply become another chapter in the schizophrenic 21st century Indiana political story that has seen Republicans win big in 2004, followed by big gains for Democrats in 2006, the historic Democratic wins in 2008, then the GOP tidal wave in 2010.

Education reform, redistricting and a bailout for the unemployment system are among the issues Karickhoff and the others will have to run on in 2012.

In the meantime, I’m watching to see if Republicans devote their focus to those issues and other imperatives, or whether they get distracted by their new power and decide to take on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and immigration. They are the issues Daniels urged national Republicans to call a truce on.

And, of course, the battle for Kokomo (and the rest of Indiana) has already begun in the wake of the 2010 election. Obama even made a visit to Kokomo recently, giving a speech at a Chrysler plant after making campaign-style stops throughout town on the way.

It makes me wonder if the Obama/Biden placard is back up at Democratic headquarters.•

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Shella is WISH-TV Channel 8’s political reporter as well as host and producer of the Emmy-nominated “Indiana Week in Review.” Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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