• Josh Cox

Indiana Democrats and the Feuding Republicans

Kent Hull, a retired attorney and author of this article, resides in South Bend.

When historians study the 2016 elections, they may ask, “How could a society with such advanced communications technology—gizmos—elect the worst president in United States history?” With the 2020 elections, they may wonder how Donald Trump still achieved 74 million votes after his catastrophic presidency.

Scholars analyzing Indiana’s 2020 state election should consider the observation of John Gregg, two-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, that Indiana Democrats were “sitting this election out. It's a missed opportunity.” It is a myth that Indiana’s Republican Party is so monolithic and unified that any Democratic challenger was, and is, hopeless.

The conflicts among Indiana Republicans were clear in 2020-21, first in the saga of Attorney General Curtis T. Hill, Jr. He lost renomination at the party convention, but won 48% of the delegate votes despite a 30-day suspension of his law license and ongoing litigation alleging unwelcome advances toward women. Todd Rokita’s tepid 52% victory revealed Hill’s political strength.

Hill had refused the plea of Gov. Eric Holcomb—the state’s preeminent Republican—to resign. The Indiana Supreme Court—five justices appointed by either Holcomb or Republican governor Mitch Daniels—unanimously refused Holcomb’s request to decide if Hill’s 30-day suspension disqualified him from serving as Attorney General. As Attorney General, Hill issued an advisory opinion that the governor could not impose a statewide mask mandate without legislative approval. Holcomb ignored the opinion.

In its 2021 session, the legislature featuring a Republican supermajority strongly supported limiting the governor’s unilateral emergency powers, an idea Holcomb strenuously opposed. The same Republican legislature overrode Holcomb’s 2020 veto of a bill limiting the authority of local governments to regulate landlord-tenant matters, a bill opposed by the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns (which surely includes prominent Republican local officials).

Democrats did not address this disunity in 2020, which in 2012 had ended Richard Lugar’s Senate career, with Republicans nominating Richard Murdock instead, and Joe Donnelly then re-capturing the seat Democrats had lost in 1976. More recently, Republican disunity is apparent in arguments about abortion, masks, and social distancing.

I am uneasy when I hear Democratic leaders talk about better use of social media, better “partnering”, a “new vision” and, especially, more money as solutions to their party’s failures. If money decided elections, Sara Gideon would be the new senator from Maine replacing Susan Collins, Jamie Harrison of South Carolina would have replaced Lindsay Graham, and Michael Bloomberg would be President. I suspect one reason each lost was reliance on strategists, operatives, and consultants unqualified to run campaigns.

For decades, Indiana Democrats had a two-word strategy: “Evan Bayh”—which relied on him and well-qualified people associated with him, such as Frank O’Bannon, Joe Hogsett, Joe Kernan, and John Gregg. After Evan Bayh’s 2016 defeat, the strategy changed to “hope and pray for another Evan Bayh." When Birch Bayh last won reelection to the Senate—in 1974—he joined his senior Democratic colleague, Vance Hartke, first elected in 1958. In the 1974 Indiana congressional delegation were Democrats John Brademas, first elected in 1958, Lee Hamilton and Andrew Jacobs, Jr., both first elected in 1964. In the four decades preceding 1974, Democrats served 24 years as Indiana’s governor.

For Indiana Democrats to win, they must first increase voter participation. In the 2020 presidential vote, Indiana ranked 40th of 50 states, behind Mississippi, South Carolina, and South Dakota. Republican victory correlates with low voter turnout. A Stacey Abrams-type voter turnout crusade would register and turn out voters. (See what another new Indiana organization, H.O.P.E., is aiming to do on this front.)

Second, they must nominate respected, progressive candidates. To quote a prominent Democrat, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” Successful candidates—and the money needed to elect them—will appear if voters are registered and ready to vote. With Democrats registered and voting, the divided Republican Party will lose its power.