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December 23, 2012

HOWEY: The Daniels era has obliterated Indiana Democrats

INDIANAPOLIS — From a political perspective, the decade-long “Mitch Daniels era” has been devastating for Indiana Democrats.

Gov. Daniels returned to the state from the White House in 2002 and with the help of Bob Grand, Jim Kittle Jr. and Randall Tobias, an engineered coup at the Indiana Republican Party began a political sequence that will reshape Indiana for at least the next decade.

While it was Justice Robert Rucker who cast a tipping vote in the Indiana Supreme Court calling for a redo in the 2003 East Chicago mayoral elections, the Republican assault on the Robert Pastrick Lake County Democratic machine continued in the Daniels era. Republican Secretary of State Todd Rokita conducted a culling of voter files that eliminated tens of thousands of cemetery voters in the biggest Democratic bastion in the state. Northern Indiana District Attorney Joseph Van Bokkelen was another key player, taking aim at the corruption within the Lake County Democratic core.

Daniels defeated Gov. Joe Kernan in 2004 after spending 15 months crisscrossing Indiana in RV1, visiting scores of Hoosier cities and towns. During his first full day in office, he ended collective bargaining that began what would be a systemic assault of organized labor.

In his book, “Keeping the Republic,” Daniels also took on unions such as AFSCME, SEIU and the National Education Association.

“My team saw the nakedness of government union power politics during my re-election year of 2008,” Daniels explained.

The SEIU had given his opponent, Jill Long Thompson, $850,000 in one check. This was the largest donation given to a political candidate in Indiana history, and the SEIU promised it would do “whatever it takes” to help the candidate win the general election, Daniels wrote.

“The UAW and AFSCME hung back for months, finally chipping in a fraction of what they had customarily given to Democratic gubernatorial candidates,” he said.

In 2009 — with General Motors and Chrysler teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and liquidation — Daniels backed efforts by Treasurer Richard Mourdock to derail the Chrysler/Fiat merger, and rhetorically was hostile to bailing out the American automakers. Daniels would say in North Manchester that the state wasn’t particularly interested in helping to save existing auto plants. From a political standpoint, the eviseration of the United Auto Workers, which had pumped tens of millions of dollars into Democratic gubernatorial campaigns for decades, was a historic opportunity.

While the Obama presidency saved GM and Chrysler, the unions aren’t nearly as potent as they were during the Evan Bayh and Frank O’Bannon eras. There is no longer a UAW Region headquartered in Indiana. Unions gave only $2.6 million to the John Gregg gubernatorial campaign in 2012, according to Project Vote Smart, and only $298,500 to the Senate campaign of Joe Donnelly.

Then came the hammer: passage of the right-to-work legislation in early 2012. Asked last week if right to work had damaged the unions, Daniels said, “No, I’m not aware that it has. That’s not its intention.”

But many observers believe it has hurt unions and that was the intent.

The other key aspect comes with the 2010 election sequence in which Democrats saw U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh — the man who revived the party between 1986 and 1988 — retire. Bayh realized that his fate might have been similar to the defeat U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar suffered this year.

 But the other part of 2010 was the erosion of support for Democrats in Southern Indiana, where they lost a number of so-called “legacy” Indiana House seats they had held for generations as Indiana Republicans obliterated a Democrat House majority into a commanding 60-40 edge for themselves.

Two years prior, while Daniels carved out a 58-40 percent re-election victory, he failed to carry a Republican House with him, one of the only times in the past century that a governor couldn’t pull a House majority in with him. His Aiming Higher PAC pumped in hundreds of thousands of dollars to help forge that 60-40 majority, which then paved the way for his sprawling education reforms in 2011 and, most importantly, the new legislative and Congressional maps.

That situation only worsened in 2012 when Republicans won 69 seats in the Indiana House. Today, Democrats hold only three of the 11 House districts that touch the Ohio River in what used to be their stronghold.

Democrats are largely compacted into two regions of the state: Marion County and the four-county Region that runs from Lake to St. Joseph County. Twenty-one of the 31 districts held by Democrats are in these areas. But the Democratic clout is eroding even there as Republicans Hal Slager and Rick Niemeyer won Lake County districts and Dale Devon won State Rep. Craig Fry’s district in St. Joseph County.

Republicans dominate the Congressional delegation 9-2 in the U.S. House, while winning a small majority of the total votes. Friendly maps will do that for you. Had Mourdock’s Senate campaign not imploded allowing Joe Donnelly to win, the situation could have been worse

For Hoosier Democrats, the critical question as Mitch Daniels exits to West Lafayette is, who’s the next Evan Bayh?

— This columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol

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