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State Rep. Carey Hamilton, D-Indianapolis, (left) confers with Wendy Dant Chesser before the House District 71 Democratic caucus in Jeffersonville on May 29. (Photo/Marilyn Odendahl)

 

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

June 6, 2024

 

The party faithful who assembled recently for a Democratic caucus in Jeffersonville would seemingly already understand the push to break the Republican supermajority in the Indiana General Assembly, but, perhaps in a nod to the hard work ahead, Hoosier Democratic leaders were there to help build momentum to turn more Statehouse seats blue.

 

Indiana Democratic Party chair Mike Schmuhl had driven from South Bend to the Ohio River community on May 29, where he was joined by state Rep. Carey Hamilton, D-Indianapolis, and other party officials at the House District 71 Democratic caucus. They were there to support their new colleague as precinct committee members elected Wendy Dant Chesser to replace the retired Rep. Rita Fleming and to promote the Democrats’ Break the Supermajority tour.

 

At a small news conference before the caucus began, Schmuhl and his colleagues promoted the effort to flip at least four seats from the Republicans to the Democrats in the Indiana House. Hamilton, the Democratic Caucus chair in the Indiana House, acknowledged the task will be difficult, because the Democrats have to retain all 30 seats in addition to gaining four more. However, the goal is achievable, she said.

 

A supermajority means one party – in Indiana’s case, the Republicans – controls at least two-thirds of the seats in a chamber. Consequently, the party in power has enough members to conduct business, including passing legislation, without the other party’s participation. That makes the superminority party – in Indiana’s case, the Democrats — nearly powerless to oppose the rival party’s measures.

 

Indiana Republicans hold supermajorities in both the Indiana House and Senate. After the 2022 elections, the GOP majority in the House is now 70-30.

 

Hamilton asserted that under 20 years of Republican control of state government, including 12 years as a supermajority, Indiana has seen “a real backsliding of quality of life for Hoosiers.” As an example, she pointed to third graders. Rather than invest in the students to help them improve their reading proficiency, she said, the Republicans passed Senate Enrolled Act 1, which will prohibit youngsters who do not meet the reading standards from moving on to the fourth grade.

 

“Alarm bells should be going off for Hoosiers across the state because of these decisions,” Hamilton said.

 

The Democrats’ plan for loosening the GOP’s grip on the legislature’s lower chamber is to strike a moderate tone. They are emphasizing what they describe as the growing extremism of the Indiana Republican Party being out of step with Hoosiers. Abortion, marijuana, public education, gun safety and the economy are issues where the Democrats assert the supermajority in the Statehouse is not representing the views of the state’s residents.

 

Staking moderate positions could leave out liberal voters, but Hamilton does not expect the liberal base to become angry and stay home in November.

 

“Democrats are pragmatic and thoughtful,” Hamilton said. “We are a big tent but we want to see change happen and we understand that that means even our more moderate communities need to be represented.”

 

Chad Kinsella, associate professor of political science at Ball State University, sees the moderate message as a smart strategy for the Indiana Democratic Party. By starting small and working to flip four seats, he said, the Democrats can maneuver and hone a message that drives voters to choose their candidates at the ballot box.

 

Also setting an apparently obtainable goal of capturing four new seats is better than championing the unrealistic outcome of Democrats turning the Statehouse blue in 2024, Kinsella added.

 

“They’re going to try new things and it’s going to be small victories,” Kinsella said, adding the Democrats will have to find what works with voters. “That’s what parties have to do when they’re in a position like this. It’s kind of like you have to start crawling back slowly but surely.”

 

Schmuhl conceded Indiana Democrats have a steep hill to climb to retain the 30 seats they now hold in the House and add even more to break the supermajority, but he believes the party has some momentum. He pointed to the 2022 election, which brought new Reps. Victoria Garcia Wilburn of Fishers and Kyle Miller of Fort Wayne into the Democratic caucus, and Schmuhl said he believes “the average Hoosier” feels Indiana has fallen “off kilter” under the 12 years that Republicans have had a supermajority.

 

“Republicans, I think, are just showing how extreme they are and how power hungry they continue to be,” Schmuhl said. “There’s not enough for them. We are going to fight for districts in Northern Indiana, Central Indiana and Southern Indiana.”

 

Impact of Clark County corruption case uncertain  

House District 71, which includes all of Jeffersonville and Clarksville in Clark County and a portion of New Albany in Floyd County, has been blue since 1990.

 

Clark County Republican Party chair Ron Grooms, a former state senator, is not giving up. He said Dant Chesser will be a formidable candidate, but he believes the Republican nominee, Scott Hawkins, can turn the district red. Hawkins, a Jeffersonville city councilor, ran against now-retired Rep. Rita Fleming in 2022 and lost by just 226 votes.

 

With just five months before the November 2024 election, Grooms said Hawkins has the advantage of name recognition, having been on the ballot before, and of organization, having a campaign already in operation. The race will be very tight, he said, but he added that Dant Chesser will have the more difficult path to winning, because she will have to quickly put together a campaign operation and raise money.

 

“Scott Hawkins is a good campaigner,” Grooms said. “He’s a good candidate. He works hard. … He knows what the issues are. He knows how hard this is for a Republican to win a (House) district like this in what used to be, traditionally, a super-strong Democratic stronghold.”

 

However, Tom Galligan, chair of the Clark County Democratic Party, said the arrest and continuing revelations of corruption by former Republican Sheriff Jamey Noel is tainting all Clark County candidates on the GOP side of the ballot. Noel, who is currently in jail on a $1.5 million bond, has been charged with multiple felonies, including theft, obstruction of justice, ghost employment and tax evasion.

 

The scandal will keep playing out before voters through the election season, since Noel’s trial is not scheduled until after the general election. Galligan said the Democrats will keep the spotlight on Noel to contrasts the former sheriff allegedly using taxpayer money to fund a lavish lifestyle, while many Clark County residents are worried about making their house payments.

 

“Down here, Jamey Noel is the big issue,” Galligan said. “He broke the trust of the public. People are upset.”

 

Grooms is not convinced Noel will tank his county’s entire Republican ticket. He looked at history and said unpopular members of a political party do not usually drown the entire ship.

 

“Show me an example of where one particular person through some type of negative activity has been the reason for everybody else getting beat,” Grooms said. “Or even a minority of candidates flipping a bunch of races. It’s awfully hard to do.”

 

When making their choices in November, voters will be motivated by the presidential race, the governor’s race and the health of the local economy, Grooms said. Moreover, the Clark County GOP has a stronger slate of candidates than the Democrats, he said, which is going to draw votes as well.

 

Clark County changed from blue to red, because, Galligan said, many residents did not support the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and they get their news from conservative media giant Fox News. Since the Republicans have controlled the local government and the message for so long, the Democratic Party has a lot of work to do to convince voters to select its candidates, he said.

 

The message that will likely reverberate with a majority of the voters, Galligan said, is a moderate one. Most people are in the middle of the political spectrum, but, he said, the Democrats’ message has to do more than talk abstractly about breaking the supermajority in the Statehouse.

 

“It needs to tell them how we’re going to make their life better,” Galligan said.

 

Suburban districts turning moderate

Along with the messaging, the Indiana Democratic Party, Schmuhl said, will have to be very strategic about the house districts in which it invests its resources. The party is not going to be able to compete everywhere or match the Republicans’ ability to raise money, he added.

 

Even so, the seats that Schmuhl listed after the House District 71 caucus as being targeted by Democrats represent some higher-income suburban communities and include some long-serving Republican incumbents.

 

The party is focused on House districts 24 and 39, which include Hamilton County, since their Republican Reps. Donna Schaibley and Jerry Torr, respectively, have announced their retirements from the Indiana General Assembly at the end of 2024. On the November ballot, Democratic hopeful Josh Lowry is running against Republican Hunter Smith in District 24 while Democrat Matt McNally is battling Republican Daniel Lopez in District 39.

 

Among the Republican incumbents, the Democrats are working to help Tiffany Stoner unseat GOP Rep. Becky Cash in House District 25, which includes Zionsville and Brownsburg. Also, Democrat Robert Pope II is challenging 16-year Rep. Greg Steuerwald for House District 40, which includes Avon, and Democrat Erika Robinson-Watkins is trying to unseat 17-year legislator Edmond Soliday of House District 4, which includes Valparaiso.

 

Kinsella of Ball State said the suburbs are likely fertile ground for Indiana Democrats’ moderate messaging. Residents in suburban communities, he said, tend to align with the center in their political beliefs and are less interested in the culture wars.

 

As evidence of the Indianapolis suburbs being more purple than red, Kinsella pointed to the vote tallies for Nikki Haley, the Republican Presidential candidate who suspended her campaign in March. She pulled more than 30% of the GOP presidential vote in Hamilton and Boone counties and topped 25% in Hendricks County.

 

Rep. Hamilton noted a similar pull away from Indiana Republicans. She said she has seen a growing interest each election cycle of people wanting to run for office as Democrats. The impetus, she said, is they want to see more of a balance of political views and agendas in the Statehouse.

 

“I think people are tired of the extremes, generally, in politics, and, in Indiana, that means the far-right ruling the day, day after day,” Hamilton said. “If we’re able to break this supermajority, we can start to bring that balance back to the Statehouse, see more public debate, not just behind-closed-doors debate, and make our democracy work better for all Hoosiers.”

 

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and IndyStar.com, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

The Indiana Citizen is a nonpartisan, nonprofit platform dedicated to increasing the number of informed and engaged Hoosier citizens. We are operated by the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) public charity. For questions about the story, contact Marilyn Odendahl at marilyn.odendahl@indianacitizen.org

 

 

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