The following report was written by Indiana journalist Mary Dieter for The Indiana Citizen.
November 16, 2022
While Republicans across the country scored fewer electoral victories last week than pundits and polls had predicted, the GOP maintained its grip on electoral power in Indiana.
The midterm election was the first since the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly in 2021 redrew congressional and legislative district maps. Critics of the process say the maps are at least partly responsible for the election outcome, which has proponents of nonpartisan redistricting, implemented in Michigan and several other states, wondering where to go from here.
“I’m just trying to figure out, OK, how do we move forward on any of our issues with continuing in our Republican super domination of the Statehouse and our congressional districts,” said Julia Vaughn, executive director of Common Cause Indiana. “I long for the days (when) issues that I work on had a fighting chance.
“And, you know, we just had better representation. I mean, just the quality of our elected officials has gone down so significantly, and I have to believe that, with party control of the redistricting process and party control of money, they don’t really want the best and brightest. They want the people whom they can easily control.”
Republicans counter that the election results were simply the result of their party’s popularity and the weakness of the Democratic Party in Indiana.
“You would have to do the sort of gymnastics that haven’t been seen since Mary Lou Retton to get the Democrats competitive,’’ said Robert Vane, former communications director for the Indiana Republican Party and deputy chief of staff for former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard. “That’s why I absolutely would reject any, any charge of gerrymandering on behalf of the Republicans and the latest districts.”
Democrats gained just a single seat in the House last week and thus will remain at a significant disadvantage, with only 30 members to the Republicans’ 70-member supermajority, when the legislature reorganizes later this month. They won a couple of squeakers, with Rep. Rita Fleming of Jeffersonville winning a third term by 1.2 percentage points and Victoria Garcia Wilburn winning by 1 point in a redrawn district with no incumbent in north suburban Indianapolis.
The 37-vote margin out of 25,913 cast in District 62 near Bloomington – long held by Republicans but seen as more favorable to Democrats as a result of the redistricting – may result in a recount; at this writing, Republican Dave Hall leads Democrat Penny Githens by 0.2 percentage point. Among other significantly redrawn districts was House District 37, where Republican House Speaker Todd Huston won by relatively close margins in recent elections before the redistricting but ran uncontested in 2022.
In the Indiana Senate, Republicans gained a seat to beef up their supermajority to 40 of the 50 senators, the result of Republican Dan Dernulc’s defeat of Democrat incumbent Michael Griffin by 4.6 percentage points in District 1 in Northwest Indiana.
Griffin, Highland’s former clerk-treasurer, will have held the Senate seat less than a year, having been appointed last February by Democratic leaders to succeed Sen. Frank E. Mrvan, who retired. Dernulc, a Lake County councilman and Republican county chair, benefited from the removal of Hammond and Munster from Senate District 1 and the district’s expansion south and west into new territories.
The Republicans also won a seat long held by Democrats, most recently Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson, who is retiring. Their two wins were partially offset by the lopsided victory by Andrea Hunley in a new district in which Indianapolis Democrats were firmly packed.
A new map for congressional districts also was in effect last week, though the partisan makeup of Indiana’s delegation remained at seven Republicans and two Democrats. The new map had prompted some political observers to wonder if congressional District 1 in Northwest Indiana, a longtime Democratic stronghold, might flip but, as it turned out, incumbent Frank J. Mrvan, former state Sen. Mrvan’s son, was reelected. The new map shored up District 5 for Republican incumbent Victoria Spartz, whose 61.1% of the vote this year far surpassed her 50% showing in 2020.
“Every year, Republicans always do better than we expect,” said Nick Roberts, a political science student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who has conducted detailed analyses on the 2021 redistricting. “In rural Indiana, it always happens. We think Democrats might have a bounce-back, but every cycle it gets tougher and tougher and tougher. …
“I don’t know what it’ll take to become more competitive,’’ said Roberts, who has announced that he will run as a Democrat for Indianapolis City-County Council in 2023. “ … It’s pretty discouraging if you’re somebody that’s hoping for competitive elections.”
Redistricting occurs every 10 years in the legislative session that follows the decennial census. The General Assembly will next redraw maps for Indiana’s congressional delegation and the state House and Senate in 2031.
Vane, the Republican, said he “can’t think of any” effect the latest redistricting had on the election.
“The number of senators or reps obviously didn’t change significantly,” he said. “So my sense is the philosophy of senators and reps in the General Assembly didn’t change significantly.”
Except, perhaps, in a way Republican leaders desired. Vane noted that House leaders effectively ejected the two most extreme members of their caucus by drawing their districts to favor others. In last May’s primary, Rep. Curt Nisly of Milford lost soundly to Rep. Craig Snow of Warsaw and Rep. John Jacob of Indianapolis lost to Julie McGuire. Snow and McGuire won last week.
“The way the lines were drawn by the Republicans this year and implemented in this election tell me they are aware they have people in their caucus or did have people in their caucus who clearly just want to rant and actually representing their district seems to be secondary,” Vane said.
Though she was discouraged by the redistricting process and the outcome Nov. 8, Rima Shahid, chief executive officer for Women4Change, said “our preparation for the next election started” the next day.
“We will continue to watch and we will continue to engage in the process; we will continue to advocate for women and Hoosiers. We’re also gearing up for the General Assembly,” said Shahid, whose organization works to educate, equip and mobilize Hoosiers to create positive change for women. “And we’re going to continue to remind people of those that want to suppress our vote, those that want to take away our bodily autonomy, those that don’t want to expand access to the ballot box – all these things – because it is incumbent upon us Hoosiers to stay involved. It’s not just a question of today or tomorrow, but it’s really about making sure that we set up Indiana for success for our children and our children’s children.”
Charles Taylor, a political science professor at Ball State University said partisan polarization and population shifts have rendered Indiana redder than in the past, and partisan redistricting exacerbates the situation.
Taylor was one of three independent members of the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission created by Common Cause in 2021 to demonstrate that a politically balanced group of citizens working transparently could create a map to serve the public interest. The commission also had three Republican and three Democratic members.
Taylor noted that cities that traditionally have been union and Democratic strongholds – several in Northwest Indiana, Anderson and Muncie – have lost population and, since the population of each legislative district is supposed to be roughly equal to other districts that make up, respectively, the House, Senate and the congressional delegation, it was necessary to push district boundaries into traditionally Republican areas. That likely explains the loss of 10-term Democrat Terri Austin of Anderson, Taylor said.
Overall, the election results left Republicans with larger proportional representation in Congress and the General Assembly than was reflected in their share of the vote in the four statewide races. For example, Republican statewide candidates, on average, got 58.4% of the vote. In contrast, Republicans will hold 78% of the state’s congressional seats, 80% of Indiana Senate seats and 70% of Indiana House seats.
“I’m a supporter of redistricting reform,” Taylor said. “I think it should be more open and more transparent and have some sort of standards that they are trying to achieve. But my general feeling is that, under the best of conditions, in today’s political environment, that won’t get the parties to proportionality. Under the best of conditions, you would still have a legislature that was more than 60% Republican. I just don’t think you could get what people want; people want proportionality. But I think that’s really tough to get in this current environment.”
Vaughn agreed that “it’s hard to draw a map that would get Democrats close to parity, but certainly, we’re not a state that is 80% Republican.”
Shahid said that point was made by a study conducted by Christopher Warshaw, an associate professor at George Washington University, for her organization. He analyzed Indiana’s maps, past and present, and found them to be more biased toward one party than 95% of all districting plans across the country in the last 50 years.
The lack of competitive districts means fewer moderate representatives are likely to be elected, Warshaw’s analysis said. Indeed, 77 of the 100 House races decided Nov. 8 offered slim competition: 42 candidates ran unopposed and two others had only nominal opposition by write-in candidates. Another 35 candidates received more than 60% of their district’s vote; 12 of those received more than 75% of the vote.
Eight Indiana Senate candidates were unopposed and 13 candidates received more than 60% of their district’s votes.
“Everybody should have to work for reelection,” Vaughn said. When districts aren’t competitive, “you just get this laziness, you get this sense of entitlement, that, you know, ‘I can do no wrong,’ right? ‘Voters just reelected me with three quarters of the vote.’ … There’s no way to hold people accountable under this kind of scenario.”
Candidates who can count on lopsided winning margins often decline to debate, make public appearances or respond to candidate surveys, “so there’s a vacuum in terms of voter information,” she said. “Voters already know who’s going to win.”
Such lopsided districts attract more extreme candidates who need not offer moderate views to win voters’ approval and also discourage prospective candidates from mounting challenges, knowing their uphill battle may be insurmountable, she said. And they discourage voting in a state that traditionally is one of the worst states in the country for voter turnout.
Vane acknowledged that “it’s probably a combination of all the above.” The answer, he said, is for voters to be more involved in primaries.
“I could go on an endless rant on the fact that people don’t participate,” he said. “… To defeat someone in a primary, you’re going to have to have voter attention and activity and involvement far beyond what we have right now. And so when people say … ‘Wouldn’t it be more fair to the voter?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be better for the voter?’ my answer always is which voter? The one who doesn’t exercise his or her vote?”
Discouraged as she may be, Vaughn said that she’ll continue the fight.
“We’ve just got to continue to come up with creative strategies,” she said. “We’re certainly not just going to throw our hands up and say, ‘this is impossible.’ It’s too important to give up the fight. But no, it’s not one where you go to bed thinking, ‘oh, yeah, tomorrow we’re going to win this fight.’ It’s definitely a long-term marathon.”
Mary Dieter is a storyteller, having written thousands of stories about people and politics over a professional career that has spanned many years and a variety of forums. She spent more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, most of them at The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky, for which she covered Indiana government and politics.