INDIANAPOLIS – For a major state political party running on fumes, the “Big Dem Weekend” should put the Hoosier political establishment on notice that the super minority Democrats are ready to feed off what they call the “socially divisive Republican agenda.”
More than 1,100 Democrats, including a number of Republican teachers, packed the Indiana Convention Center for the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner Friday night. So big was the crowd that the party had to move the dinner to bigger quarters on the second floor.
For a party which has been locked out of the governor’s office for three terms, and with only three members of Congress, 31 in the Indiana House and 13 in the Indiana Senate, it seemed to be revved up after the dramatic debate on the constitutional marriage amendment last winter in the Indiana General Assembly. Chairman John Zody described Indiana Democrats as “focused but realistic about our goals.”
Those goals would be making inroads in the Indiana House and Senate, Joe Bock’s challenge to U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski in the 2nd CD, and picking up another Statehouse office, where many party regulars expect Beth White to make a vigorous challenge to appointed Republican incumbent Connie Lawson.
In the midst of the turnout were the two emerging 2016 gubernatorial candidates, 2012 nominee John Gregg and Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, who circulated in the Jefferson-Jackson dinner Friday night. The most conspicuous no-show was former two-term governor and U.S. senator Evan Bayh. One party operative observed that Bayh’s name tended to surface “at the end of a joke.”
Many Democrats, including McDermott, were bitterly disappointed when Bayh bolted the 2010 ticket with a bombshell announcement just days before the filing deadline, setting off a Chinese fire drill that had candidates jumping into other races and led to the loss of the 8th CD and a handful of Southwestern Indiana House and Senate seats. It fueled the Republicans’ 60-seat majority after the 2010 elections. The buzz from a number of Democrats about Bayh’s $9.8 million campaign war chest is that he is keeping it largely under lock until one of his 18-year-old twin sons decides to return to the state to forge a third Bayh generation dynasty, which is at least seven years in the offing.
Democrats like 8th CD Chairman Tony Long believe the party has a chance to win two Evansville area House seats held by State Reps. Holli Sullivan and Lloyd Arnold. Sources tell HPI that in districts where a dozen educators are running in House and Senate races, both Supt. Glenda Ritz and U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly ran strong in 2012. Democrats also believe they have a shot at two Senate seats in southeastern Indiana held by Sens. Jim Smith and Ron Grooms.
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, writing in the NWI Times, explained, “The civil war playing out in today’s Republican Party – one that pits traditional right-wing views of mainstream Republicans against those of tea party extremists – presents an opportunity for Indiana’s Democrats to show ourselves as the party that is in touch with working families and values hard work. Capturing victory in November means ending the extremist crusade on social issues, the attacks on public education and the continued assault on organized labor.”
Democrats point to the Republican primary losses of State Reps. Rebecca Kubacki and Kathy Heuer, both moderates representing some of the most evangelical districts in the state, as evidence that while recent polls in Indiana and nationally show voters trending away from the constitutional marriage amendment and marijuana prohibition, the evangelical wing of the GOP is doubling down on those issues. Democrats will be watching with great interest a Republican Party platform fight later this week on whether to take a stance on the marriage amendment.
What Indiana Democrats need is a unifying voice (or two) to stump for its House and Senate candidates this fall and exploit the shift in public opinion away from Republicans who want to continue the fight on issues like marriage. Then-U.S. Rep. Mike Pence campaigned for more than a dozen Republican legislative candidates in 2010 as a prelude to his gubernatorial campaign, to great effect.
That could be a role for Gregg and McDermott.
There has been much turmoil with Republican Statehouse officeholders and their campaigns. Republican Supt. Tony Bennett was upset by Ritz in 2012 in a backlash to the education reforms he forged with Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Secretary of State Charlie White was forced to resign after a conviction. Auditor Dwayne Sawyer resigned just months after being appointed. In 2008, while Daniels’ re-election was on its way to a 481,422 plurality over Democrat Jill Long Thompson, Bennett barely defeated little-known Democrat Richard Wood by 51,000 votes and Attorney General Greg Zoeller nipped Democrat Linda Pence by just 38,863 votes. In 2006 Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated Michael Griffin by 61,921 votes, Auditor (and now Republican Chairman) Tim Berry defeated Democrat Judy Anderson by just 36,064 votes and Rokita defeated Joe Pearson by 89,455 votes.
So Indiana Democrats have goals and openings. Over the next six months, it will come down to whether the party can find a unifying voice and presence, and the campaign execution and funding of their candidates.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.