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After losing big, Indiana Democrats wonder what to do next

November 7, 2018

Election Day was good for Democrats nationally, as the party regained control of the U.S. House, but it was a much different story for Democrats in Indiana on Tuesday night.

Indiana Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate seat and made no gains in the U.S. House despite a couple of races that political analysts believed could be competitive.

“To the extent the House shifted control, it was in spite of Indiana,” University of Evansville political science professor Robert Dion said.

Republicans also kept control over all three of Indiana’s statewide-elected offices that were on the ballot—treasurer, auditor and secretary of state.

Democrats made a couple of gains on Indiana House and Senate seats, but the supermajority will remain in the Senate. The GOP will still control the House, but the supermajority is still in question pending results of a few races that had yet to be called as of Wednesday morning.

“I think there’s some real soul searching in the Democratic Party that needs to happen,” said Kip Tew, a former Indiana Democratic Party chairman who ran former President Barak Obama’s 2008 state campaign.

Not even close

Dion said the so-called blue wave was insufficient in places where Republicans are strong.

“We got a lesson that Indiana was one of those places,” Dion said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly’s race against Republican challenger Mike Braun had been expected to be close and leaning in Donnelly’s favor, according to most polls, but Braun easily won. The latest preliminary results show Braun with 53 percent of the vote to Donnelly’s 43 percent. Libertarian candidate Lucy Brenton received about 4 percent.

Donnelly won in Democratic counties such as Lake, Monroe and Marion, but not at the same levels Barack Obama did in 2008 when he won the state, a factor that political analysts say made a difference.

Senate races were closer in places like Texas, where Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz won 51 percent to 48 percent against Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. In Florida, pending a possible recount, Republican Rick Scott barely won the U.S. Senate race, receiving 50.2 percent of the vote to Democrat Bill Nelson’s 49.8 percent, according to the AP.

“We went the way of Missouri,” Dion said. “A tough moderate Democratic incumbent was toppled by a conservative Republican.”

In Missouri, Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill lost to Republican Josh Hawley, 51.5 percent.to 45.5 percent.

In Indiana’s 2nd and 9th congressional districts, which were expected to be competitive if a blue wave happened nationally, Republican incumbents easily won re-election. Republican Jackie Walorski beat Democrat Mel Hall, 57 percent to 43 percent, according to preliminary data in the 2nd district. And Republican Trey Hollingsworth defeated Democrat Liz Watson, 60 percent to 41 percent, in the 9th district.

“It is just a really tough terrain right now for Democrats,” Dion said. “It’s got to be dispiriting.”

One bright side for Democrats was picking up an Indiana Senate seat with J.D. Ford defeating Republican incumbent Mike Delph in the 29th district, which includes parts of Marion and Hamilton counties.

Another positive statistic for Dems was the shift in the suburbs—Donnelly lost in Hamilton County, but he did better than Obama did 2008—getting 44 percent of the vote compared to Obama's 39 percent.

Why didn’t Democrats have success in Indiana?

Tew said he blames the impact of Republican President Donald Trump, who visited the state five times between the May primary and Election Day.

“I don’t think the fever of Donald Trump has broken in the state of Indiana yet, but I anticipate that's it’s going to,” Tew said.

Another issue could be that Donnelly, who ran as a moderate and had several ads criticizing the far-left, didn’t excite the party base enough.

Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said Donnelly’s calculation that those ads would earn him some soft Republicans or middle of the road voters without costing him too many members of the party base obviously didn’t work.

“Democrats for decades have thought that the centrist model was one that worked,” Downs said. “But it may not be the formula for right now.”

Former Democratic state Rep. Christina Hale said she thinks voter turnout was the problem.

“Democrats didn’t do as well as we should have… we have more people engaged than we have in recent years, but we still have far too many that are willing to sit on the sidelines,” Hale said. “More than anything, you gotta get out and vote.”

She said the polls made people feel like Donnelly wasn’t in trouble.

“I think we made a critical error in listening to this polling,” Hale said. “So many people sat on the bench and sat this one out.”

What’s next for Indiana Democrats?

On Tuesday night, Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said he was disappointed in the results, but the party can focus on the future.

“We’ll analyze the data and see,” Zody said. “We always look at what we did and what we might do in the future. We did that in 2016.”

Hale said the party needs to throw out the playbook and rethink their entire strategy.

“If we continue to do the same thing and expect a different result, that's crazy,” Hale said. “I think that we have reached a point of significant low self-esteem as a party. There are many people that are going to want to refresh the way we do business.”

Downs said if conversations about changes in party leadership haven’t already started, they will soon, because 2020 could be another bad year for Indiana Democrats.

“The party has to ask that question,” Downs said. “This is like the sports team that had a bad season.”

One Democratic strategist who asked not to be named called Zody a “very nice, mild-mannered coward.”

But Zody was re-elected to another four-year term in 2017 and has no plans to leave.

“I certainly don’t have any plans to leave right now,” Zody said Tuesday night.

Tew said Zody is well-liked, so he expects him to stay through his term.

“There won’t be an outcry to get rid of him,” Tew said. “This doesn’t fall at his seat that this happened.”

As for what 2020 could be like for Indiana Democrats, political analysts say it’s too early to tell.

Tew said he’s not worried, because “two years is a lifetime in politics.”

Dion said it will be challenging for the party, but if they can build a team from the ground up in 2019 municipal elections, that could lead to more success in the future. Although, it probably won’t mean much in 2020.

“Nobody ever said politics was easy, so we'll see,” Dion said. “There’s always another election right around the corner… you live to fight another day.”

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