Lessons from the defeat of Speaker Dailey


INDIANAPOLIS — On Election Day 1986, Hoosier voters in House District 37 delivered an emphatic message to Speaker J. Roberts Dailey. He had spent much of the previous decade blocking a constitutional referendum on a statewide lottery. On this day, he would lose 25 of 29 precincts in his stunning upset loss to Democrat Marc Carmichael.

And, lo and behold, two years later the constitutional lottery referendum was passed by Hoosier voters, some 63% who supported the change.

In his book “Mr. Speaker,” Dailey acknowledged, “My strong opposition to legalizing gambling in Indiana probably had a lot to do with my defeat for reelection in 1986. The opposition said I refused to permit the people to make a decision on the matter by referendum. I regret that the issue became the ‘speaker’s power’ rather than the validity of endorsing gambling.”

I tell this story because on Sept. 15, the right to have an abortion in Indiana closes to a 10-week window for pregnancies that came about due rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother.

While there were few who testified in favor of Senate Bill 1 during two weeks of debate during the Indiana General Assembly’s special session, lambasted by pro-lifers that it wasn’t comprehensive enough and pro-choice advocates that it infringed on the rights of women, it passed the Indiana Senate 28-19 and the House 62-38. Gov. Eric Holcomb quickly signed SEA1, saying, “Following the overturning of Roe, I stated clearly that I would be willing to support legislation that made progress in protecting life. In my view, SEA 1 accomplishes this goal following its passage in both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly with a solid majority of support.”

Those majority votes on SEA1 do not accurately reflect the will of Hoosiers. A poll conducted in late July by Indy Politics and ARW Strategies showed that most Hoosiers think abortion should be legal in all or most cases at 54%, while 40% said it should be illegal in all or most cases. And a Public Policy Poll conducted in Indiana July 14-15 revealed that 71% believe woman should have access to all reproductive health care options, including abortion. This includes 58% of Republicans and 62% of independents.

State Rep. Timothy Wesco, who chaired the House Elections Committee during the 2021 redistricting, said in a Facebook post, “The only polls that guide my decision are the ones open on Election Day. History has shown time and time again that public opinion polls can be easily skewed and completely wrong. The legislature should protect the life of the child and the life of the mother with no (other) exceptions. Life is too sacred to make exceptions.”

So this “solid majority of support” is a mirage, a phantom image of the Hoosier body politic. In recent statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate, Republicans polled in the 55-57% range. But in the Indiana House, Republicans control 71 of 100 seats; in the Senate, the GOP has 39 of 50 seats. In General Assembly elections this November, eight Senate Republicans are seeking reelection unopposed. My analysis in Howey Politics Indiana this week shows that out of 17 Senate districts in play, Democrats have a shot at picking up, at the most, three seats. In the House there are 44 running unopposed, including 29 Republicans.

Indiana Republicans have held super majorities since 2014, an unprecedented level of one-party dominance in our 206 year history. They did this with artful gerrymandering cloaked in the speak of political consultants, who insisted they were creating districts of “communities of interest,” respecting county lines while lacking the shapes of salamanders.

Holcomb continued, “Let me assure you that the democratic process marches on, and you should continue to reach out to all your elected representatives to have your voice heard. For my part as your governor, I will continue to keep an open ear.”

So this is where a majority of Hoosiers come in.

Late last week, House Democrats proposed a statewide referendum on the abortion issue. This amendment to SB1 was soundly defeated, 68-32. “They’re recognizing that the State of Kansas allowed their citizens to weigh in on this subject and whether you like the results of how the poll, the vote ended or not, those people had the right to vote,” said Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie.

She was referring to a Kansas referendum on whether abortion was constitutional last week. While Donald Trump carried 56% of the vote in Kansas in 2020 (and 57% in Indiana), that Kansas referendum passed 59-41%, including some of the most conservative Republican counties in the state, keeping the abortion option in the constitution.

State Rep. Ann Vermilion, R-Marion and a former hospital administrator who described herself as pro-life lined up against SB1 in an emotional address saying, “We are moving too fast for fruitful discussion. Rushed decisions lead to bad decisions.”

So the lesson for those of you who believe SEA1 is a policy overreach, the only way to break through is at the ballot box. Defeating a few senators or representatives will be heard like a thunderclap at the Indiana Statehouse.


The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.