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February 20, 2012

House Democrat exodus is a crisis for the party

GREENCASTLE — The magnitude of seismic Republican Statehouse gains that have Indiana Democrats careening from disaster to catastrophe came into clearer focus on Feb. 10 when 12 House Democrats with a combined tenure of 236 years did not file for re-election.

The looming retirements make the Republican super majority of 67 seats — needing a pickup of seven — a distinct possibility. A Howey Politics Indiana analysis of House races shows that of the 10 open seats due to redistricting, Republicans are in the driver’s seat in just about all of them. A 70-seat majority is not beyond the scope.

State Reps. Chet Dobis, Nancy Dembowski and Craig Fry did not file for re-election last Friday, joining Dale Grubb, Dan Stevenson, William Crawford, John Day, Jeb Bardon, Dave Cheatham, Scott Reske, Mary Ann Sullivan, and Dennis Tyler in the biggest House exodus in modern Hoosier history. Two consecutive years of bitter fighting over the right-to-work, education reform and abortion restriction legislation and a distinct minority of 40 seats left a number of House Democrats questioning the civility of the process. Grubb quit as caucus chair in January after divisions surfaced within the caucus over the walkout. Cheatham announced he wouldn’t seek another term, citing the contentious atmosphere in the House.

Democrats controlled the redistricting in 1991 and 2001, and the exodus following those revamps did not approach this level. In February 2002 after House Democrats drew the new maps, only three Republicans, then in a 53-47 minority, retired, along with four Democrats.

The new districts and exodus of veterans is already prompting some Democrats to think about dumping Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer. It comes after other veterans such as Bill Cochran, Bob Bischoff, Dennis Avery, Paul Robertson and Ron Herrell either retired or were defeated over the past two cycles.

The biggest surprise was with Dobis, who was elected to the House in 1970. He was drawn into a district with State Rep. Vernon Smith, then bought a home in Schererville. But when the filing dust settled, Republican Lake County Council member Rick Niemeyer of Lowell had filed and he emerges as a favorite for at least one GOP pickup.

Dobis had battled Bauer, calling him “paranoid” in recent years, and lost his leadership position when he and Bauer sparred over the Illiana Expressway bill. In 2011, House Speaker Brian Bosma appointed the Democrat to a committee chairmanship, an unprecedented move aimed at power sharing, but seen by Bauer as an invasion of his caucus power circle.

The Dobis bug out is indicative of the treacherous path Bauer has led House Democrats and the realities of the new GOP-drawn maps.

“We wanted a bigger name to fill that spot for us,” said Lake County Democratic Chair Thomas McDermott Jr., “but with the makeup of the district, it was hard to convince them it was a winnable seat.”

That’s the reality of the new districts. With the maps the Democrats forged in 1991 and 2001, the districts were gerrymandered in such a way that if Republicans carried as much as 55 percent of the total House vote, they could still wind up with only 48 or 49 seats.

In addition to the 10 new districts without an incumbent, Democrats could lose the seats being vacated by Fry, Sullivan and Cheatham in Southern Indiana, where the party is seeing its base dramatically erode after the 2010 debacle. With Bauer calling the shots on the House campaigns, the party veered away from a cogent central message (“Our party saved the auto industry in Indiana”) to seamy mailers personally attacking the character of opposing Republicans. It was political porn.

On Wednesday, Gov. Mitch Daniels, speaking to Hamilton County Republicans, said of Bauer, “We have been blessed by our opposition. My heart is full of gratitude, really.”

McDermott told me in a series of text messages he did not designate as “off the record” that a leadership challenge to Bauer is inevitable. “One way or another he gets challenged,” McDermott said.

That comment came after I had asked him about the party’s vulnerability in competing in the House. Republicans already have a super majority in the Senate. A House super majority of 67 along with a “Gov. Mike Pence” means the GOP would be able to conduct business without a single Democrat reporting for a quorum. They could spend the entire session in Illinois and it wouldn’t stop a single bill.

McDermott seemed to backtrack on his Bauer comments, posting on his Facebook page that his “stupid” words were causing “many who read those comments to squirm (myself included). I don’t deny making the comments, I just should have realized it wasn’t my place to comment on the things that I commented on.”

McDermott obviously was getting heat from Bauer and other Democrats who want to keep the status quo, but his remarks were hardly “stupid” and Democrats who feel the same way should encourage the mayor and others to continue to speak out.

With this exodus of veterans, the Indiana Democratic Party is facing a catastrophe this fall. It has long prioritized keeping a House majority along with gubernatorial and Congressional campaigns. The party’s track record is increasingly futile on all fronts.

Democrats should be doing some soul searching on whether current leadership is up to the extreme circumstances the party faces.

 

The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Contact Howey at bhowey2@gmail.com.

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