Indiana Senate Democrats, long considered the last bastion of liberal thought in state government, are in danger of becoming politically irrelevant after the Nov. 2 election—something they say would disenfranchise nearly 2 million Hoosiers who live in their districts.
Senate Republicans now hold 33 of the 50 state Senate seats, one short of a quorum. If they win the 34th seat next week, Republicans will be able to do Senate business without a single Democrat present. Such a circumstance would render impotent the last arrow the minority has in a sparse quiver: the ability to walk off the floor to halt action.
Neither side is predicting that will happen as a result of the upcoming election. But with predictions across the nation that Republicans will win big at all levels of government, both acknowledge that it could.
“I think we’re in good shape for” keeping 17 seats and possibly adding an 18th, said minority leader Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington.
“We’re not counting seats at this point,” said Sen. Bev Gard, R-Greenfield, chairwoman of the Senate Majority Campaign Committee. “We have a strong majority and we think we’ll continue to have a strong majority. Our first priority is what you would expect, and it’s to re-elect our incumbents.”
Half of the Senate will be elected next month, but only three races feature no incumbent. Each party is confident it will keep the newly open seats from which its party mate is retiring. Two retirees are Democratic, one Republican.
Though incumbents generally have a huge advantage in an election, Republicans identify four Democrats they think are vulnerable. Democrats see vulnerability in three Republican incumbents, including Sen. Jim Merritt, who has represented Indianapolis’s northeast side for 20 years. He is challenged by term-limited Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson, a Democrat.
Gard said the Merritt-Anderson race may be the most expensive state Senate contest ever. Simpson said Merritt will have $500,000 to spend, while Anderson will have about half that.
“We’re never able to spend as much on our races as Senate Republicans can raise,” Simpson said. “They’ve been in control of the Senate for 32 years, so they have figured out where all the dollars are hidden in what has become a very money-focused process.”
Though she concedes it’s unlikely Democrats will have more than 18 members when the 2011 General Assembly organizes in late November, Simpson said she refuses to believe that her party is in a permanent minority. However, with new district maps set to be drawn next year, Republicans have the ability to shore up their majority—a task at which they have proven remarkably adept.
After briefly losing the majority post-Watergate, Senate Republicans regained it in 1978 and have never looked back. They’ve been in charge of drawing new district maps for the subsequent three decades and are set to draw them again next year.
Even when the parties split control of Indiana’s bicameral General Assembly, each chamber generally draws its own map with the acquiescence of the other. Though he was House Democratic point man on redistricting in 1981, Sen. Lindel Hume of Princeton had virtually nothing to do with redistricting in the Senate until he moved to that body and led Democrats’ 1991 and 2001 redistricting efforts.
And even then, Hume said he had little to do with drawing the maps. “Being the ranking minority member and 50 cents might get you a cup of coffee because you have very little input, very little control,” Hume said. “Even if you have Jesus Christ draw the map—whom I have faith in and [who] I’m sure would draw it so that the Democrats would have an advantage—the Legislature still has to vote on it under the Indiana Constitution, and his map would not pass the Senate.”
In 1991, Republicans “drew one of the most dramatically political maps that they could possibly have drawn, and we as a minority were able to stop that by walking out,” Hume said. The walkout denied the Senate a quorum, preventing floor action and forcing the Republicans to back off on some things that Democrats had found particularly egregious. After the Republicans tweaked the proposal, Democrats returned to the floor for a vote.
The 1991 map performed as both parties expected, giving Senate Republicans the majority for the ensuing decade and leaving them in charge when the 2001 map was drawn. They “simply fine-tuned” the previous map, Hume said, and provided “almost unquestionably a guarantee, even under a bad year for Republicans, of 29 or 30 seats.”
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, took issue with Hume’s characterization. Senate districts “are fairly solid,” he said. “There’s not a lot of criticism there and I think they’re fairly representative, really, of people in this state and they’re drawn in a much fairer fashion” than either House or congressional districts.
Still, depending on what happens Nov. 2, Long’s caucus is on the verge of gaining an advantage that no 1991-like Democratic walkout could overcome. Gard said, however, that a quorum-proof majority is not her caucus’s goal.
“We’re not even talking about that issue,” she said. “If we did get 34 [seats] or more, we would continue to engage with the minority like we always have. They’ve been elected to represent constituents and they deserve the right to be able to do that.”
Long said that, regardless of the political makeup, “the decorum in the Senate is one of mutual respect, and I expect that to continue.”
The framers of the state Constitution, Simpson said, required a quorum to do business to ensure that the minority’s interests—and those of the 123,000 Hoosiers that each senator represents—were protected. The minority party rarely prevails on a vote, so its ability to deny a vote is an important tool without which “the people we represent would be disenfranchised.”
After a third of a century in power, she said, Senate Republicans “need to be challenged on issues; they need to be challenged in the debate on the priorities of the state; and they need to be challenged in elections.
“And one of the reasons why they aren’t challenged and have never felt challenged is because they have gerrymandered the Senate districts to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to run and to win against an incumbent,” Simpson said. “That’s a bad thing for all of us, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican or something in between. Democracy is best served when there are races where people can make real choices and where their votes really count for something.”
Races are competitive in most of the state, Long said, with the exception of northwest Indiana, where he said districts have been drawn—as the law requires—to provide seats to racial minorities and thus favor Democrats for election.
“Generally elsewhere, a lot of the other seats are very close and the races have been close,” he said. “You’re assuming there’s a blowout in every race, and there’s not. As a matter of fact, a number of them have been remarkably close over the years and the Republicans have prevailed. But I think that we have better candidates.”
Republicans also win because “right now the Republican Party is more reflective of the political leanings of this state,” he said.
Hume disagreed, saying Indiana’s political composition is much closer than the Senate makeup suggests. The parties have traded the governor’s office and leadership in the House of Representatives several times in the last 32 years and in 2008 Indiana voted Democratic in the presidential election for the first time since 1964.
“The two-thirds majority that [Republicans] had established within their maps was clearly beyond the true reflection of the makeup of the political parties in the state of Indiana,” Hume said.
Simpson agreed. “The political pendulum swings back and forth,” she said, “except in the Indiana Senate.”