Commentary

Turning a red state purple can take a decade

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FANCY GAP, Va. — Georgia was as red a state as Indiana currently is. It took Stacey Abrams a decade of candidate recruitment, an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, and the creation of Fair Fight Action set up to battle vote suppression for Democrats to put the state in the Joe Biden Electoral College column last November, as well as win two U.S. Senate seats.

New Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl faces a similar challenge. Last year, Schmuhl managed a $100 million presidential bid and helped Pete Buttigieg win the Iowa caucus. Two months ago, he took the helm of the woebegone Indiana Democratic Party, which hasn’t won a statewide race since 2012 (though Barack Obama carried the state’s 11 Electoral College votes in 2008).

Which will be the bigger challenge?

That question won’t be answered until November 2022, or perhaps two years beyond that, but Chairman Schmuhl has been building a new foundation. Earlier this month, he announced a new red state program with the Democratic National Committee bringing a four-year fundraising agreement that includes direct investments and grants for states that meet the following criteria: No Democratic senator or governor, less than 25% of the congressional delegation are Democrats, and a super majority of Republicans in their state legislature.

Schmuhl added five deputy chairs: Bloomington Clerk Nicole Bolden, liaison for cities and towns; 2016 lieutenant governor nominee Christina Hale, candidate recruitment; Sen. Eddie Melton, equity and engagement; Kent Yeager, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, rural communities; and former Indianapolis associate corporation counsel Destiny Wells, coalitions and expansion.

He called the DNC’s red state investment program that fits Indiana to a T “the largest investment in state parties in history. We’ll get more money.”

This summer and fall, Schmuhl and his team will fan out across the 92 counties to try to make Indiana a competitive, two-party state again. This effort will coincide with a redistricting process that Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer believes will delay new General Assembly and congressional maps until Thanksgiving.

Schmuhl called that delay “disappointing,” and added, “Redistricting has been tilted in one direction. We want to be able to this summer going around the state holding the Republicans accountable as far as fairness, equity and composition.”

Noting that while 57% of voters chose Republicans in 2020, the majority party carried 70% of legislative seats. “I think it’s skewed and unfair,” Schmuhl said. “I want a level playing field across the state as much as we can.”

The operative clause there is “as much as we can.” Standing in the way are the General Assembly super majorities poised to redraw maps using 2011 terminology: Compact districts, communities of interest, preserving county lines. Those maps have resulted in the current historic longevity of Republican super majorities, while not a single U.S. House incumbent lost this past decade, which was unprecedented. But in two out of three U.S. Senate races, control of a seat switched parties.

“What we’ll do is have events across the state and talk to Hoosiers directly about what’s going on in Indianapolis, on how Republicans tip the scales in their favor,” Schmuhl said. “We need to really hammer that home, issues like competition and fairness. We need to call out Republicans when they rig their environment.”

Schmuhl said that “creating alternative maps” is also another option.

As for the 2022 reelection bid by Republican U.S. Sen. Todd Young, who defeated former senator and governor Evan Bayh in 2016, Schmuhl said, “I’ve been talking to a few candidates who have shown interest. Out of respect for those folks I don’t want to share their names. I continue to chat with those folks about what it would take to put together a competitive bid. Todd Young does need to be held accountable for his term in office.”

Schmuhl called the biennial budget forged by the General Assembly in April “a successful session …  because of Joe Biden and his leadership as president and the federal stimulus coming in an extraordinary set of circumstances.”

Reminded that voters will opt to vote against their own economic well-being for cultural issues, Schmuhl responded, “We are organizing around that right now. This summer, we are going to go around the state and talk about the American Rescue Plan and what it is bringing to Indiana. That’s every county, that’s every city. Everybody is backing this plan. It is hugely popular to the tune of 70% plus.”

He believes the political environment will provide a tailwind for Democrats. “This mid-term can be very different from previous ones,” Schmuhl said. “This summer and fall, kids will be back in school, parents back at work, we are gathering again socially, life is back to normal. That is not overly political, that is just human nature.

“We’re already seeing how popular Joe Biden is,” he added. “We want these policies to continue and we’ll be promoting them throughout the entire state.”

As for Donald Trump’s persistent efforts to portray himself as a victim of a “stolen election,” Schmuhl said. “I think there is a huge fracture within the Republican Party from ex-president Trump all the way down to the state level here in Indiana.

“It’s a battle for the identity of the Republican Party,” Schmuhl said. “We’re going to be talking about things that are actually helping people, helping families, helping workers, while they figure out who they are and how extreme they want to be.”

 

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

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