Democrats losing Southern Indiana base

“Our caucus did believe until the end that we might be able to hold on to 51 seats,” said then Majority Leader Russ Stilwell of Boonville who lost to Susan Ellspermann by a stunning 10 percent. “The real difference was that the Hoosier Political Tsunami hit us much higher in the chest than we anticipated.  When I saw your national congressional generics favoring the GOP in the 10-15 percent range on the morning of the election, I had a sinking feeling, not only about my race but my caucus as a whole. The numbers were right on and it was intensified in the Ohio and Wabash valley.”

When overlaying the Indiana House, Indiana Senate and Congressional maps, there is little doubt that the work of the voters on Nov. 2 could be as profound as the period after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 put in motion the transformation of the Deep South from a bastion of conservative Democrats to the “New South” of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.

The party saw a dramatic erosion of “Reagan Democrat” voters, particularly in Southern Indiana. Two parts of the three-legged stool that allowed President Obama to carry the state – white females and young people – were down dramatically (though African-Americans turnout was high). The white female vote declined from 47 to 40 percent, the youth vote from 19 to 11 percent. For the first time in a decade, conservatives outnumbered moderates from 44 to 36 percent in 2008 to 43-40 percent in 2010.

But even more telling, Republicans won all but two county offices in Posey County. For more than a century no Republican had won in Clark County, but on Nov. 2, the GOP won the Clark County auditor, treasurer and recorder, three county council seats, four township trustee seats along with two GOP state senators and three Republican state reps. The party is making inroads in places like Harrison and Warrick counties. 

Mike Gentry of the House Republican Campaign Committee did early polling in HD70 and 73 and saw generic ballot numbers favoring Republicans 17 percent in Rep. Paul Robertson’s seat and 13 percent in the seat held by the father and son Dennie Oxley tandem. “We’re seeing a trend not only in Southern Indiana, but in Southern legislatures as well,” Gentry said of what he calls “heritage Democratic” voters. “The conservative southern Democrats have pretty much decided they no longer stand with the national Democrats – the East Coast, Chicago, Left Coast party of Obama, Pelosi and Reid. It became pretty apparent they couldn’t identify with that party and that’s happening in Indiana, particularly Southern Indiana.”

House Democrats never had a coherent message – quick, think, what was their campaign theme? Auto belt Democrats like Reps. Ron Herrell and Joe Pearson didn’t talk about how the Obama auto restructuring saved scores of jobs in Kokomo and Marion in their paid ad campaigns. Both lost. “It’s hard to win elections when people act irrationally,” Chairman Dan Parker observed.

How bad is it for Indiana Democrats? They’re in danger of becoming an urban-based party. In 2008, Indiana House districts represented by Democrats touched all or parts of 57 counties. The 2010 election reduced that to 37 counties. Democrats were the sole representatives in the Indiana House for 17 counties in 2008: Monroe, Gibson, Clay, Jennings, Harrison, Washington, Perry, Jefferson, Starke, Fountain, Vermillion, Posey, Orange, Blackford, Crawford, Switzerland and Ohio. Now, that holds true for only Jennings, Jefferson, Starke, Fountain and Vermillion.

Democrats represented 10 counties exclusively in 2008 that are now represented exclusively by Republicans: Harrison, Washington, Perry, Blackford, Crawford, Ohio, Orange, Posey, Putnam and Switzerland. The seven most Democratic counties – Marion, Lake, St. Joseph, Porter, Monroe, LaPorte and Vigo – account for 33.7 House seats. Of the remaining Democratic baseline counties – Scott, Starke, Sullivan, Perry, Vermillion, Pike, Crawford and Switzerland – only Switzerland and Scott gained population between 2000 and 2009.

Whereas the Republican wave of 1994 washed out urban Democrats in Muncie, Terre Haute, Kokomo, Indianapolis and Marion, the party was able to regain most of those seats over the next two election cycles (and regain the House majority in 1996), but this wave claimed rural and small town Democrats.

Parker observed, “If you do an overlay of the 2008 presidential primary maps, in the districts where Hillary Clinton won, we got slaughtered. While the African-Americans showed up, the young people and white women didn’t. When you have an electorate which is more male, older and you’re losing 15 percent of white Democrats, that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Southern Indiana used to be reliably Democrat at the legislative level, but cracks began appearing in the party’s façade in 2000 and 2004 as President George W. Bush began carrying many of the Ohio and Wabash river counties that had traditionally gone Democratic. Gov. Mitch Daniels was able to cut into the party’s gubernatorial bulwark in 2004 and again in 2008. The same dynamic is occurring in the Louisville market.

Certainly Democrats can be competitive in Clark, Posey and Warrick legislative races, but the days of those being reliably Democratic may be over.

(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)

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