Mike Schmuhl became the Indiana Democratic Party chairman in March and is faced with the task of rebuilding a party that hasn’t won a statewide elective office in nearly a decade. A South Bend native, Schmuhl managed childhood friend Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign, as well as his mayoral campaign in 2011.
IBJ recently had a chance to talk to Schmuhl about his rebuilding efforts—and the prospect of Buttigieg coming back to Indiana to run for office. Here’s what Schmuhl had to say.
How prepared is the party to win at least one statewide race in 2022 or 2024?
That work is starting right now, and my goal is to build a stronger foundation for our party in every county across the state, all 92 counties. I think that what we need to do as the Democratic Party is to make sure that there’s that base of support and engagement and involvement, year in and year out. So we’re not just dependent on a strong campaign popping up every few years. I think once we have that, we’ll be able to be more successful county by county across the state, and win bigger races, win those marquee races. And, I’ll tell you, I’m 38 years old, and in my life it has really been 50/50 in terms of statewide elected officials. We’ve always had a democratic senator or a democratic governor. Now, it has swung the other way, but we’re much more a middle-of-the-road state than what people give us credit for.
How do you go about rebuilding the party in the state?
There are two things I want to build in this position. One is a year-round organizing program that trains and engages people in a community level across Indiana. They’re building relationships, they’re having conversations, they’re having events and training on how to use available sources like data and voter lists. Things like that we’ve always done, but I think doing it in a way that’s more correlated and spread out across the state will be essential.
The other thing is more related to media and information. We need to educate Hoosiers more on their elected officials, who’s on the ballot and the issues that are facing them every day. So, I’m looking to build a small team at the [Indiana Democratic Party] that can do a few different things. Go on offense and talk about the values that we have and the policies we’re pushing. We’ve all seen in the last few years the misinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news—not the IBJ—it’s all out there. We need to push back against that and call it what it is.
What is one thing you learned from managing the Buttigieg campaign that you can transfer to statewide campaigns here in Indiana?
The biggest thing I learned, not just with Pete but also with someone like Senator [Joe] Donnelly, is that you go everywhere and you talk to everybody. Not just speaking with people who are like-minded or voted a certain way in the past, but you go everywhere. And that’s actually what we’re doing right now, with the American Rescue Plan Tour that we launched this month. We’re going to around 30 counties around the state to talk about the American Rescue Plan and the benefits that it’s bringing each and every Indiana community. We’re on the third week of that, and it’s great. We’re going to communities small, medium and large to talk about the benefits and what Democrats are doing to deliver to Hoosiers.
How is that tour going, and what’s the overall aim of it?
It’s going great. … We have speakers from across the state to participate in this tour with us. Big names like Joe Donnelly and John Gregg, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, State Senator Jean Breaux, Christina Hale – the list goes on and on.
The aim is really to go on offense. We went through a lot over the last four years and now Joe Biden is our president and I think each and every day is showing what steady, competent presidential leadership looks like and the rescue plan has COVID in the rearview mirror. It’s extremely successful in delivering for communities across the state
What does the recent announcement of McCormick officially switching parties mean for Indiana Democrats?
She’s the most recent superintendent of public instruction and in her career has worked for our kids, education and the future of our state. She was an elected Republican official who, I think, day in and day out saw what the Republican Party was doing in our state and how they were governing. To her, it just wasn’t the right path forward. I’m excited she’s joined, sort of formally, our party. She’s joined the tour and talked about the rescue plan’s investment in public education and our kids. She’s a great partner.
The state party is getting some money from the DNC to help rebuild the party, specifically at the county level. How much are you getting and how will it be used?
We are still crunching the numbers on how much, but we are going to get more money per month from the DNC. It’s the largest investment the DNC has made into state politics in its history. So I think what we’re really seeing is a 50-state strategy from Joe Biden and Jaime Harrison, the chair of the DNC.
It’s a huge benefit to us. It gives us more resources to build more programs and hire more people, and I think you’re seeing that Joe Biden is a traditional party-builder. He’s someone who wants to go to every community and wants to be president for all Americans. He wants to rebuild the middle class, invest in our future and set us up for success. He’s not just focusing on blue states or purple states, but all states. It’s a huge benefit to the work we’re doing here.
Some take your selection as Indiana Democratic Party Chairman as an indication that your childhood friend Pete Buttigieg may return to the state eventually and run for governor or U.S. Senate. Is that going to happen and would you encourage it?
Well, I think he really likes being the U.S. Secretary of Transportation right now. He’s hard at work there, so it would be a little premature to talk about any of that. But he is a Hoosier, and he has said that Indiana will always be home for him. Right now though, I think he’s pretty good where he is.