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Indiana Democrats face low point after election losses

November 20, 2016

Indiana Democrats saw their hopes for a resurgence dashed under the weight of Donald Trump's landslide victory and Republicans gaining complete control of the state's government.

It's a low point that casts doubt on former Sen. Evan Bayh and two-time gubernatorial candidate John Gregg as future candidates and leaves Democrats hamstrung when U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly will be up for re-election in 2018.

Leaders point to Trump and Gov. Mike Pence's 19 percentage-point victory in Indiana over Democrat Hillary Clinton as a margin that proved too much for other Democratic candidates to overcome. Gregg came closest statewide, but lost to Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb by 6 percentage points even while running nearly 200,000 votes ahead of Clinton.

"That's a pretty big lift to try to do more than that," said Donnelly, whose seat will likely be targeted by Republicans in two years.

Clinton paid little attention to Indiana this year; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders beat her in the May primary.

Going forward, state and national Democrats ought to embrace positions similar to Sanders' on protecting jobs from leaving the country and cutting the influence of Wall Street, said Indianapolis City-County Council member Zach Adamson, who was a Sanders delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

Indiana Democrats have too often run as "diet Republicans" in hoping to appeal for crossover votes rather than building up their own base of support, Adamson said.

"You win once or twice with that sort of philosophy—and I think it is more luck than anything—then you sort of adopt it as a way of doing business," he said.

Who Democrats might turn to as future statewide candidates is unclear.

Bayh had been the most successful Democrat in modern history with his two terms as governor and two landslide elections to the U.S. Senate. But he lost by 10 percentage points to Republican Todd Young after facing a barrage of attack ads that questioned Bayh's residency in Indiana and his lucrative business dealings since leaving the Senate six years ago.

Meanwhile, Gregg's campaign raised a record of more than $17 million, only to see him lose to Holcomb by a wider margin than he did in his 2012 race against Pence.

The only Democrat leading a state government office, state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, was ousted by Republican Jennifer McCormick. The party also fell short of gaining influence in the Legislature, picking up a single seat in the Indiana House, where Republicans will have a 70-30 majority, and losing one seat in the state Senate, where the GOP now has a 41-9 margin.

Mayors in some of the state's largest cities are Democrats—Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and South Bend—but none has run successfully statewide before.

Indiana House Democratic leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City is trying to look forward to the 2018 elections as a referendum on Republicans under a Trump presidency, saying "the tide washes in and the tide washes out."

Republicans will likely target Donnelly's hold on the U.S. Senate seat as he is one of five Democratic senators up for election in 2018 in states where Trump won by double-digit margins.

Donnelly seems intent on continuing to cultivate a nonpartisan image, highlighting his work trying to halt companies from moving Indiana factory jobs out of the country—a topic he says he's willing to work on with Trump.

During the week after the election, he held a news conference about plans for building a memorial in Washington honoring veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf war and attended to a Farm Bureau festival in southwestern Indiana's Posey County.

"I don't win my elections in Washington by talking," Donnelly said. "Any success we have is by being on the ground here in Indiana 'cause there's a whole lot more wisdom in Poseyville than in Washington, D.C."

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