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Sides ponder political fallout of Statehouse boycott

March 20, 2011

Both Democrats and Republicans claim the ongoing boycott by Indiana House Democrats is rallying support for their side, spurring new donations and rousing the party faithful. But the long-term political fallout from the boycott may be less consequential than some predict because it's a long way until November 2012.

"Right now, the walkout is galvanizing Democrats behind the Democrats. It is galvanizing Republicans behind Republicans," said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. "The question is that mass of voters in the middle."

House Democrats fled the state for Illinois on Feb. 22 to derail a host of Republican-backed proposals they consider an attack on labor unions and public education. State Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker says the walkout has brought in new donations from those who consider the Republican agenda overreaching and harmful to the middle class.

"Some of the issues that Republicans have embraced will come back to bite them next year," Parker said. "They're going to suffer the ramifications."

Several Indiana union members who rallied at the Statehouse in recent weeks have said they regret not voting in the last election, and say they'll pay more attention to politics in the future. Parker acknowledged that the boycott is primarily energizing his party's base right now — but said that's just what Democrats need.

"The base of the Democratic Party wasn't as engaged as it needed to be in 2010," Parker said. "There's been an awakening for a whole lot of folks."

Many House Democrats who survived the 2010 election — in which Republicans took control of the Indiana House with a commanding 60-40 majority — come from legislative districts considered safe for Democrats.

But Republicans are hopeful that they still have room to pick up more seats in 2012. Democrats won tight races in a handful of seats in 2010, and the GOP holds the power to redraw political maps through redistricting this year. Picking up seven more seats in the House would allow Republicans to conduct business even if Democrats boycotted, and many believe the Democrats' boycott could help the GOP toward that goal.

State Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb said House Democrats have defined themselves by walking off the job.

"This will be their legacy for some time coming," Holcomb said. "I think Hoosiers and taxpayers in general expect you to participate in Democracy no matter what party you're a member of."

Both parties have boycotted before and the public tends to quickly forget small skirmishes, Downs noted. But this standoff is more memorable because Democrats fled the state, not just the House chambers, and it's stretching on for weeks, not days.

Republicans say it's the longest walkout in state history, and it has gained more media attention than previous walkouts — including plenty of national coverage since Indiana's boycott came after some Wisconsin lawmakers took similar action.

But whether the boycott makes any real difference in the 2012 elections will largely come down to how the standoff ends, Downs said. It has the potential to derail many bills, but so far Republican leaders in the Statehouse say they are moving on without House Democrats and few proposals are actually dead.

The boycott's effects on 2012 will also be determined by political spin, Downs said. Democrats are already portraying themselves as defenders of workers' rights, even though fewer than 10 percent of workers in Indiana belong to a union.

"The Republicans clearly aren't on the side of the middle class," Parker said.

Republicans, meanwhile, say the majority of Indiana residents back their proposals and say voters are frustrated with Democrats who left.

"The way for Democrats to ensure voters move on and turn the page on this footnote of failure will be through participating in the process," Holcomb said. "Until they do that, it will be on voters' minds."

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