Indiana Democrats face a rebuilding effort

The Indiana Democratic Party this year hit what it can only hope is rock bottom.

Woody Myers, the party’s nominee for governor, managed only 30% of the vote, losing to the incumbent Republican, Eric Holcomb, by a margin of almost 2 to 1.

It was the worst performance by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since Harvin H. Moore managed only 28.6% of the vote in 1828. Moore finished third in a three-way race, losing to incumbent James B. Ray, who was running as an independent, and Israel T. Branby, who was running as a Whig. Ray won the election with just under 40% of the vote.

This year’s vote total was a far cry from the 1980s when Evan Bayh launched a Golden Era of Democratic politics in Indiana. The son of Birch Bayh, a former three-term U.S. senator, the younger Bayh first won election as secretary of state before going on to win two terms as governor and then taking back his father’s Senate seat.

He served two terms in the Senate, collecting more than 60% of the vote in both elections. At the time, it seemed he could hang onto that Senate seat as long as he wanted, but he shocked his party in 2010 by announcing he would not seek a third term. Bayh attempted a comeback in 2016 but lost to Republican Todd Young by about 265,000 votes, a margin of nearly 10 percentage points.

By the time the next gubernatorial election rolls around in 2024, it will have been 20 years since Mitch Daniels defeated Democratic incumbent Joe Kernan to kick off a string of three straight Republican governors.

For those saying it needs another Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democratic Party has demonstrated it can win a statewide election without Bayh on the ballot. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama carried the state on his way to the White House, and in 2012, the year Republican Mike Pence was elected governor, Democrat Glenda Ritz knocked off incumbent Republican Tony Bennett for superintendent of public instruction, and Democrat Joe Donnelly defeated Republican Richard Mourdock for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The party’s next shot at statewide office comes in two years when Young’s Senate seat will be back on the ballot, but to have any chance at success, the party needs a coherent message.

Perhaps it could adopt the one Evan Bayh shared with Margaret Warner of “PBS NewsHour” in 1996.

“I view balancing the budget and fiscal responsibility as a necessary precondition to social compassion and progress,” he said.

When governments run out of money, he said, the first to get hurt are the poor, the sick and the young.

“If we’re going to do more for education, more for health care, more for the environment, we can only do that if we have the money,” he said. “And that means balancing our budget and growing our economy.”

To regain its viability, the party needs to figure out what it means to be an Indiana Democrat in the third decade of the 21st century. What does the party believe in, and perhaps more importantly, what does it not believe in?

It believes in racial justice. It does not believe in defunding police departments.

It believes in affordable health care. It does not believe in socialism.

It believes in attracting good paying jobs, but it does not want to do that at the expense of the environment.

It wants accountability in public education, but it also wants to reward hard-working teachers.

In other words, the party must make clear what it stands for. If it fails to do that, its opponents will be happy to fill the gap.

Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Send comments to [email protected]