As Indiana Republicans celebrate their newly expanded power and plan how to wield it, Hoosier Democrats are seeking a way back from the wilderness into which voters cast them last week.
“We’re in the middle of the Sinai, heading for the Promised Land,” said John Gregg, the former Democratic House speaker from Sanborn. “We’re in the middle of our wanderings, but we know where we’re going.”
It is not unfamiliar territory for a party whose leaders concede that Indiana is fundamentally a Republican state. Indiana “is more Republican than any state that’s larger and larger than any state that is more Republican,” said Brian Vargus, a political science professor at IUPUI.
If there was any doubt that Hoosiers leaned right, it was dispelled last week when Democrats lost 12 House seats, became politically irrelevant in the Indiana Senate by losing their ability to deny a quorum, lost two congressmen and a U.S. senator, and failed to win any of three state offices.
“They’re as low as I’ve seen them, certainly since the early '80s,” said David Hadley, Wabash College political science chairman.
“This was a tsunami; there’s no question about it,” said Ann DeLaney, Democratic state chairwoman from 1993 to 1995. “But there’ll be a course correction . . . We saw it in ’74; we saw it in ’80; we saw in ’94; we saw it in 2006. It just depends on which way the pendulum swings.
“It’s obviously swung way in the other direction, but it’ll correct itself. We’ve got to have candidates out there and we’ve got to have a message that resonates and we’ve got to have cooperation from the national party.”
William Moreau, who worked for U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and later was chief of staff to Bayh’s son, Evan Bayh, said, “If you trace from 1981 through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s why Democrats were successful at the polls, it was because we became associated with being the party of reform. And when successes started to slip away from us, it was because we became associated with being the party of the status quo.”
Democrats can methodically regain some political power, starting with municipal elections next year, if they promote the right messages, recruit good candidates and avoid bruising primaries, including for Indianapolis mayor, he said.
Tuesday’s results, while devastating for Democrats statewide and nationally, were a good sign for that race, DeLaney said. Democrats won all the Marion County races, including that for prosecutor, in which Republican Mark Massa had the financial support of Gov. Mitch Daniels. Election results suggest that more Marion County Democrats voted Tuesday than in 2006, she said.
A majority of Indiana mayors are Democratic, especially in southern Indiana—the very area where Democrats suffered their most devastating losses last week. Mike Jones, the 9th District Democratic chairman, said that the party’s strength in municipal offices causes him to believe that Democrats will again be victorious in the region.
Gregg agreed. Republicans “may have picked up all the Dixiecrat seats, and they cut a wide swath and I know they’re going to think this was a landmark election and these people are going to stay Republican,” he said. “It ain’t gonna happen because they’re going overstep their bounds on some goofy social program like requiring a husband’s consent for a hysterectomy.” (Bruce Borders, a Jasonville Republican, pushed that idea last session).
Tom New, chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon, said that to win statewide, Democrats have to regain the confidence of southern Indiana voters, but “we can’t sit around and wait for an Evan Bayh to come along. We’re going to have to work at party building ourselves, starting immediately with the municipal races.”
It’s not necessarily another Evan Bayh, but the real thing, that excites some Democrats. After declining to seek a third Senate term in last week’s election, Bayh said he is mulling running for governor again in 2012. Jones said Bayh has told him to expect a decision by year’s end. Bayh was elected secretary of state in 1986, governor in 1988 and 1992 and U.S. senator in 1998 and 2004—and long has been hailed as his party’s savior.
“Right now Democrats are waiting to see what our Moses is going to do,” Gregg said. “If our Moses comes back, our Moses can lead us to the Promised Land if he wants to.”
Democrats might have a harder time of it if Bayh declines to make the race, but they are not bereft of good candidates for governor, political observers say. They mentioned Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel; Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott; former Lt. Gov. Kathy Davis of Indianapolis; outgoing Lake County Sheriff Roy Dominguez; state Senate Democratic leader Vi Simpson of Bloomington; former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson; defeated U.S. Rep. Baron Hill of Seymour; and outgoing U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth of Evansville, who was defeated in the U.S. Senate race.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers will draw new district lines next year, so Republicans have the opportunity to extend their dominance in the General Assembly into 2012 and beyond. Gregg, who was the Democratic point man for redistricting in 1991 and speaker in 2001, said that the effort typically pays off for two election cycles but then the effect wears off.
The work, while never easy, becomes even more difficult with as large a majority as House Republicans have, Gregg said. All 60 members will be clamoring for their respective districts to take in more Republican voters to ensure their re-election. DeLaney put it this way: “They cannot protect everybody they’re going to be asked to protect, no matter how creative they get.”
Hadley, however, said that, with redistricting, some veteran Democratic lawmakers may quit when they consider they may be out of power for years. Since incumbents always have the edge in elections, retirements could hurt Democrats’ chances of resurging, he said.
But Democrats will come back, New said. “I’ve seen this happen before. I’ve lived through this back and forth so often. People are angry. People have no way to express their anger except to vote against the folks who are in there.
When you have the jobless rate as high as it is across the country, including here in Indiana, when you have people who are losing their homes, people who are losing their pensions, their 401(k)s, losing their jobs, the incumbent party is going to take it on the chin every time.”