I originally had planned to attend last week’s Indiana Democratic Convention in Fort Wayne but unfortunately – or fortunately depending on your perspective – I had to attend a conference in Las Vegas.
I did make it a point to follow my media colleagues on Twitter as well as read what they wrote when I got back. As I was following the storyline of the convention unfold, I honestly wondered why I flew more than 1,800 miles when the show that would have rivaled David Copperfield was taking place 122 miles up I-69.
What surprised me the most was hearing Democrats all but admit that they can’t win in Indiana unless they get help from Republicans.
When gubernatorial candidate John Gregg told delegates to talk to “independents, Republicans and Dick Lugar Republicans” and tell them that “there’s room in our party for them,” that told me quite a bit.
Barack Obama notwithstanding, Indiana Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since Evan Bayh ran for re-election in 2004. Even when the national climate worked in the Democrats’ favor, the news hasn’t been very good for them at the statewide level.
In 2006, when the nation was fed up with George W. Bush and the Iraq war, Democrats captured three Congressional seats: Joe Donnelly in the 2nd District (52 percent – 48 percent); Brad Ellsworth in the 8th District (61-39); Baron Hill in the 9th District (50-45-5, including the Libertarian).
However, they lost the three statewide offices that were on the ballot: Todd Rokita beat Joe Pearson in the Secretary of State’s race (51-45-3). Tim Berry beat Judy Anderson for state Auditor (52-48); Richard Mourdock defeated Mike Griffin for state Treasurer (52-48). Please note, this also the same year that Pat Bauer and the Democrats recaptured the Indiana House of Representatives.
In 2008, with Indiana voting for a Democrat for President for the first time since 1964, Democrats still managed to lose every statewide office on the ballot. Mitch Daniels beat Jill Long Thompson for governor (60-39); Greg Zoeller beat Linda Pence for Attorney General (51-49); and Tony Bennett beat Richard Wood for Superintendent of Public Instruction (51-49).
I won’t even elaborate on the political bloodbath of 2010.
Now this isn’t to say that a strategy of appealing to independents and moderates of the other party isn’t a good strategy in the general election. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard beat Melina Kennedy (51-47) in a county where Democrats not only won the council, but also had a 10-point lead-in going into the election and a 12,000 straight ticket voting advantage.
Mitch Daniels was also the beneficiary of crossover votes. And Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry is proof that reaching across the aisle can work.
However, in each case, specifically Daniels and Ballard, they did not run as Republicans per se, but as effective leaders who got things done, like balance budgets, putting criminals behind bars and getting the roads paved.
Democrats are going to have to change the tone of their rhetoric if they truly want to have that bi-partisan appeal. I don’t know if calling your opponent a show horse or saying they’ve declared a war on women, teachers, or cantaloupes for that matter will get you anywhere.
Instead it would be best if they offer realistic solutions to the state’s challenges, such as continuing to improve education, criminal justice reform and finding new money for roads and infrastructure. I also don’t think it helps if you’re trying to appeal to the middle while you pal around with Nancy Pelosi and devout socialist Bernie Sanders.
This isn’t to say that the Democrats’ strategy can’t work. They’ve just got a tall order to fill.
The good news for them is that they at least have one Republican who will be voting Democratic this fall, Glenda Ritz, their candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Since 1990, she’s voted in all but three Republican primaries. Hey, every journey begins with one step.