For Indiana Democrats these days, every year is a rebuilding year (2024)

Brittany Carloni,Kayla DwyerIndianapolis Star

For Indiana Democrats these days, every year is a rebuilding year (1)

For Indiana Democrats these days, every year is a rebuilding year (2)

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A few days after a raucous state GOP convention where Republicans rejected their gubernatorial nominee’s choice of running mate, Indiana Democrats called a press conference with little actual news to share.

Republicans had just chosen an ultraconservative, self-described Christian nationalist as their lieutenant governor candidate. It seemed to bring Democrats together, on social media at least, as members of the party warned of an “extremist” Mike Braun/Micah Beckwith ticket. This Democratic gathering at the UAW region office in Indianapolis was a chance to recognize this moment as a potential springboard for a party that has struggled to gain ground in the Hoosier state for more than a decade. The mood was grave, but resolute.

“I'm under no illusions of the state that we live in,” party Chair Mike Schmuhl said. “We live under a Republican supermajority. Republicans have every statewide elected office. I understand the challenges.

“But Hoosiers deserve better.”

Within days, that sense of unification took a hit when word surfaced that Jennifer McCormick, their nominee for governor, planned to endorse former state Rep. Terry Goodin, previously an anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and pro-gun Democrat, as her running mate. Progressive Democrats saw it as a rebuke of the basic tenets of the party platform.

Goodin came out of the gate apologizing for those past positions and has made amends with prominent members of the LGBTQ community, yet he will still be challenged by three other lieutenant governor candidates at the Democratic convention this Saturday in Indianapolis.

Indiana Democratic Convention: Party meets Saturday to choose who will take on Todd Rokita and Micah Beckwith

The public division on McCormick’s lieutenant governor pick showed a party still struggling to find common ground on its direction heading into another major general election where the expectations for Democrats in statewide races are low.

Additional frustration has bubbled in the attorney general’s race, where candidates Destiny Wells and Beth White have debated whether a contested convention election benefits or hurts the party's attempt to unseat Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita.

Indiana Democrats have not won a contested statewide race since 2012, and party factions disagree about how to turn that tide: whether to run moderate or progressive candidates, whether to focus on rural or suburban communities. In the absence of an elected statewide party leader, there’s a tendency among some to blame the party chair, while his defenders argue that naysayers have an outsized view of what role the party should play. Compounding these tensions, the Democratic Party and its top candidates raise far less money than they used to in Indiana.

Party leaders who spoke with IndyStar said they know Democrats won’t earn major wins overnight but contend the party has seen some progress, albeit slow, especially in the 2023 municipal elections across the state, where Democrats won mayoral seats in six cities.

In deep red Indiana, where there are limited signs for success in the top of ticket contests, playing the long game can test patience.

“I think it is so hard to be in Indiana and be a Democrat sometimes,” said Cheryl Schultz, chair of the Vanderburgh County Democratic Party.

Is Mike Schmuhl the savior Democrats hoped for?

When Mike Schmuhl took the reins of the Indiana Democratic Party in 2021 after running the presidential campaign of now-Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, he likened himself to a basketball coach whose team “hasn’t made the tournament in a while.”

“It is a rebuilding year,” Schmuhl said at the time. But three years later, Democrats are still attempting to rebuild as Republicans continue to maintain a tight grip on offices around the state.

“I think that we have moved the needle a little bit, but progress takes time,” he says now.

It’s a different Indiana than when Schmuhl grew up in South Bend. That Indiana featured a balance of Democratic and Republican leaders across the state. Schmuhl’s ascent to the top of the state party was followed by redistricting in 2021, when Republicans drew the maps to ensure they retained their stronghold on the Statehouse and strengthened their congressional districts.

Schmuhl doesn’t have an easy task leading the state party in 2024, especially when there is no elected statewide Democrat the party can lean on to help with fundraising and leadership, said Robin Winston, who served as the Indiana Democratic Party chair under Frank O’Bannon, the last Democratic governor in Indiana, more than 20 years ago.

“That makes a major, major difference," he said.

As state party chair, Winston not only had O’Bannon in the governor’s office, but there were Democrats in the attorney general’s office, 67 mayoral offices and a relatively balanced Indiana General Assembly ― many avenues to tap grassroots supporters when the party needed it. Today there are zero Democrats in statewide offices, 42 Democratic mayors and the party holds a superminority in the Indiana General Assembly.

In rural parts of the state, where Republicans have a strong grip on voters, local Democratic leaders say they need more resources to share the party's message. Teresa Kendall, chair of the Dubois County Democrats, said talk of party turmoil is caused mostly by Marion County-centered individuals and that Schmuhl, as a “weak” state chair, has not gotten those debates under control.

Dubois County, which is home to Mike Braun’s city of Jasper, is among rural communities that struggle to get party messages out due to the lack of traditional news and media sources, Kendall said. Rural areas need the party’s attention because voter turnout is often higher in these cities and towns, she said.

“It would be great to see the party operate as a 92-county party rather than Marion County and the donuts,” Kendall said. “I think that’s why we haven’t prevailed.”

Kip Tew, another former Democratic Party chair, argues critics of Schmuhl likely have an unrealistic view of what a state party chair can accomplish in today’s media and information environment on top of an already challenging electoral landscape. The state political party is a support mechanism for candidates, a resource for county parties, organizers of training opportunities and recruiting candidates for offices, Tew said.

“People think Mike’s ineffective because he doesn’t have control, but I don't think it’s a fair criticism,” Tew said. “He can’t just wave a magic wand.”

In 2004, when Tew sat atop the state party, every city in Indiana had a local newspaper from which people got their news, before social media and algorithmic-fueled echo chambers. The party considered it part of his job to get a particular message out and could count on it reaching a broad audience.

“That has completely blown up,” he said. “Now, nobody looks to the party for messaging.”

In other counties around the state, local party leaders say Schmuhl and the state Democratic Party have contributed to momentum, specifically in the 2023 municipal elections.

Schultz, in Vanderburgh County, credits state Democrats with helping fuel the local party’s success, especially turning Evansville blue. Schmuhl helped Schultz identify good candidates to run and brought in volunteers to call voters on the day of the election, she said.

“I think people want to see it overnight,” Schultz said. “We got this great person as our party chair, and we’re gonna turn this state blue. It takes multiple election cycles. We have to be patient.”

Democrats' money problem

Money isn’t everything in politics, but it’s a key ingredient. And it’s hard to come by when return on investment is scarce.

The Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate, McCormick, probably needs at least $10 million to adequately get her message out and potentially convince moderate Republicans to reject the far-right politics of the Braun-Beckwith ticket, insiders estimate. But since the convention, only one large donation has come through from a longstanding Democratic donor ― a $20,000 contribution from Ann Stack. McCormick last reported about a quarter million in her bank account.

By comparison, gubernatorial candidate John Gregg in 2016 raised about $17 million during the campaign cycle and still lost to Eric Holcomb.

In another top-of-ticket race, for one of Indiana’s Senate seats, two sparsely funded Democrats competed in May to face Republican candidate Jim Banks in November. Compared to the current congressman's millions, winning Democratic nominee Valerie McCray has less than $2,000 on hand as of mid-April.

Statewide campaigns aren’t the only ones struggling. In the years of relative balance in Indiana ― in the late 2000s, for example, when the General Assembly was split and Hoosiers voted for President Barack Obama while reelecting Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels ― the state party’s central committee had a deeper bench of consistent high-profile donors to rely on: multiple members of the Simon family and other prominent business leaders. During this time, the party raised $7 million to $13 million a year. Some of those donor names have dropped off the central committee’s campaign finance reports in more recent years, where total fundraising has amounted to $2.5 million at best.

With former President Donald Trump on the ballot again, Democrats are struggling in 2024. As of the mid-April finance report this year, the party had raised about $180,000. This time in 2022, it had raised nearly $320,000.

The party let go two staff organizers this year, too. Schmuhl said this was part of shifting priorities to focus on flipping seats in Central Indiana.

DNC Boost: Indiana isn't a battleground state. But national Dems want to help break GOP supermajority

That’s not to say that donors have disappeared. There’s no shortage of other non-party-affiliated groups that support progressive causes, with whom they can diversify their investment. The Democratic National Committee has also stepped in with resources toward the party’s goal of flipping enough Statehouse seats to break the Republican supermajority. (Schmuhl is on the DNC’s executive committee.)

The party’s finances shouldn’t necessarily be conflated with the success of campaigns around the state, argues Schmuhl, who’s been on campaign teams for former U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly as well as Buttigieg.

“You don't sit around the table saying, ‘How's the party going to win this race for us?’” he said. “You sit around the table, and you say, ‘How are we going to win this race?’

Winston thinks it’s too early to discount McCormick’s ability to raise money. It can come in late, especially if there’s enlightening polling ― and there hasn’t been any public polling yet on this governor’s race.

Glenda Ritz, one of the last Democrats elected to a statewide office, in 2012, had far less money than her opponent, Tony Bennett.

“It’s how you use your resources,” Winston said. “It was just grassroots 101.”

Lessons from the Bayh-O’Bannon years

The time of Democratic governors in Indiana feels like a bygone era for some in the party. Politics has changed dramatically since O’Bannon died in the governor's office in 2003.

While no O’Bannon or Evan Bayh has emerged, some who were involved in the party’s last “glory days” still see takeaways from that era they believe can help Democrats today.

Bayh and O’Bannon had name recognition and reputation, but it wasn’t just about money or luck, Winston said. The party focused heavily on grassroots organizing.

Winston said he sees grassroots-organizing potential in McCormick, who collected 9,000 signatures ― double the requirement ― to file for governor.

Doug Davidoff, a former Indianapolis News reporter who also worked for the state Democrats under O’Bannon, said the party gained power by organizing county chairs and then sheriffs and then Democratic mayors.

“The more mayors we elected, the more places Frank could go and campaign, and the mayor would introduce him, or the sheriff would introduce him,” Davidoff said.

Indiana Democrats today need to continue to focus on organizing at the local level, said Patti Yount, a longtime Democratic leader and Hoosier representative on the Democratic National Committee. You can’t always “force” a major statewide campaign to be successful, she said.

Democrats have to start from the ground up and make connections in all 92 counties across the state, which is what state Republicans did to gain political control across Indiana, Yount said.

“They made it an all-out agenda to break us in the township trustees and county commissioners,” Yount said. “We went so long that people took it for granted that we would always have it. That is your base in each county, which helps get the vote out and messaging.”

Some Indiana Democrats don’t see the leadership from decades ago as the best path forward for the party at this point. Destiny Wells, who was the Democratic nominee in the closely watched secretary of state race in 2022, said she believes a portion of the state party is afraid of change.

On the other hand, Beth White, her opponent to be the Democratic attorney general candidate, said there needs to be more balance between pushing for major change and having credible candidates who are prepared to govern. But Wells, who is the party’s deputy chair for coalitions and expansion, said Democrats have to remember that people define the party, not the other way around.

“I'm over there saying the future always wins. We have to adapt, right?” Wells said in a late-May interview. “I'm gonna try my damnedest to get us there.”

2024 elections

The stack of challenges that piled up for Democrats over the years has made it hard to recruit candidates to tackle political campaigns that seem impossible to win, said state Sen. Shelli Yoder, a Bloomington Democrat who serves as the party’s deputy chair for candidate recruitment.

Indiana Democrats don’t have self-funders lining up to run with pockets of money to spend on campaigns, which can deter potential candidates from running, Yoder said. In the May primaries, several Republican candidates loaned their campaigns millions of dollars.

The odds are tough, and it could take multiple times running for a seat before something positive happens, Yoder said. But the party is working hard, especially to contest Indiana House seats in areas across the state, she said.

“The reality is public service is freaking hard,” Yoder said. “Public service is hard, getting your name out there is hard, asking for support and money and volunteers and knocking on doors asking people to vote for you, it is hard. It's also very rewarding."

In Hamilton County, Democratic Chair Jocelyn Vare said she is optimistic that the suburban county is where the party can help spark success on a statewide basis. Some of the more closely watched Statehouse races later this year will overlap parts of Hamilton County, such as outgoing Republican Carmel state Reps. Jerry Torr's and Donna Schaibley’s seats in the House.

But it’s going to come down to voter turnout for actual change to occur, Vare said.

“It really does all come down to voter turnout. We know that our candidates are getting great support,” Vare said. “Where we're falling short is that support isn't voting. And that's where our focus has to be.”

But there is still a separation on where the party’s focus should be to regain power in the state. McCormick, who served as state secretary of education before switching from the Republican Party, picked Goodin as her preferred running mate, which some viewed as a sign the party is looking to reconnect with rural Hoosier voters.

State Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, nearly launched his own lieutenant governor bid and on the day of Goodin’s announcement said that communities like Hamilton, Marion and Boone counties need to also be considered by the gubernatorial ticket. He reiterated that message in a post on his campaign Facebook account when he decided not to challenge Goodin at the convention.

“I also want to highlight that Dr. McCormick's vision for our party includes bringing rural Democrats back into the fold,” Ford wrote. “This is crucial for the future of our party and our state. However, we must also focus on our growing urban and suburban communities, which are equally vital.”

McCormick and Goodin said they knew they'd have to have a lot of deep conversations with many constituents about Goodin's past stances. Goodin worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture up until very recently and was legally bound from politicking, so those conversations had to happen after the fact. And those have been positive, Goodin said.

The message of their ticket is this: Many hot-button issues aren't black and white. The party tent should be big, and be interested in nuance and common ground.

"There are a lot of Terry Goodins out there who used to think the way they did, who think the way I do now," Goodin told IndyStar.

"And I think that should be our goal, as a state, is that growth," McCormick added, "giving people the space and the grace to learn and do better and be better."

Contact IndyStar's state government and politics reporter Brittany Carloni at brittany.carloni@indystar.com or 317-779-4468. Follow her on Twitter/X@CarloniBrittany.

Contact IndyStar state government and politics reporter Kayla Dwyer at kdwyer@indystar.com or follow her on Twitter@kayla_dwyer17.

For Indiana Democrats these days, every year is a rebuilding year (2024)

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