INDIANAPOLIS — In the history of competition and upsets, the first rule is that you have to show up. Just ask returning Pacer’s coach Rick Carlisle (who led Chaminade to the historic 1982 upset over Ralph Sampson’s No. 1-ranked Virginia) or Appalachian State’s 2007 football stunner over No. 5 ranked Michigan in the Big House.
That’s what is facing new Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl, who took over the party that hasn’t won a statewide race since 2012, occupies only two of 11 congressional seats, super minority status in the General Assembly, none of the Statehouse constitutional offices and about 10% of commissioner seats in 92 counties.
Taking the helm in late March, Schmuhl borrowed from the playbook he devised when he managed Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign. Mayor Pete concentrated on rural Iowa counties and after a tormented counting of delegates, won the caucuses.
In 2008, Barack Obama and campaign manager David Plouffe opened a couple dozen county campaign offices in Republican-dominated locales like Noblesville, Elkhart and Hartford City. Obama didn’t win, but instead of losing counties 70-30% he lost by 60-40% and won Indiana’s big cities and college towns on the way to its 11 Electoral College votes.
In June, Schmuhl launched the American Rescue Plan tour and sent Democrats like John Gregg, Joe Donnelly, Jill Long Thompson, Christina Hale and young legislators like Eddie Melton, J.D. Ford and Mike Andrade out into the Hoosier prairies and small towns.
In Miami County, where Donald Trump bludgeoned Joe Biden 75-22% last November, State Sen. J.D. Ford and State Rep. Earl Harris Jr. showed up to make the pitch in the tiny town of Denver. It resulted in the Peru Tribune banner headline, “State Democrats tout local successes of ARP.”
In the article by the Tribune’s Jared Keever, it was noted that Miami County received about $6.8 million in funding from the legislation, and its Republican county commissioners “have already voted to earmark $1.4 million of that to expand broadband service to rural county residents through a Miami-Cass REMC project.”
In Kosciusko County, where Trump defeated Biden 74-23%, David Slone’s reported in the Warsaw Times-Union that while Hoosier Republicans touted $250 million for broadband expansion, Melton said of the state's biennial budget passed last April, “So this budget that we’re talking about … is a bipartisan budget. But it wouldn’t be this way if it wasn’t for Joe Biden, the American president."
In the national bellwether county of Vigo County (where Trump bucked history, winning 56-41%), Gregg, Rep. Tonya Pfaff and Democrat Vice Chairwoman Myla Eldridge conveyed this message: The American Rescue Plan brought $20.7 million to the county, $30.4 million to county schools and $38.2 million to Terre Haute.
Gregg, the Democrat gubernatorial nominee in 2012 and 2016, joined the team of Hoosier Democrats at a half dozen stops, mostly in Trump country. “I was very pleased and pleasantly surprised,” Gregg told Howey Politics Indiana on Wednesday. “There were good-sized crowds and new faces. People asked substantive questions about how they could defend on the bogus issues Republicans like to throw at to district voters, such as defund the police, socialism, Pelosi and Schumer, etc.
“There seemed to be good coverage in the local press as well as social media,” Gregg continued. “I just kept reminding the listeners we have to brand ourselves and not let the other party brand us.” These Democrats reminded those inclined to believe the “defund the police notion” that ARP had $350 million for local police, but had no Republican votes.
Schmuhl told me that the first critical phase of the Democrat rebound and remaking Indiana into a two-party state is “officially over.”
“I would just say it was hugely successful,” said Schmuhl. “We spent all of June talking to people in large counties and small.”
Schmuhl said the exercise was an important first step, in part because of the 2020 pandemic. “We went through a presidential year, through a pandemic. We just had to knock off some of the rust. It helped us get a lot of earned media, it helped us hone our message with Hoosiers. We went everywhere. We were able to get former and current office holders and candidates, potential future candidates to spread the good news.”
Schmuhl said that the party rebuild’s next step will begin later this month, likening the coming focus on President Biden’s American Jobs Plan to game two of a doubleheader. “We’ll shift our focus to the American Jobs Plan and what that could deliver for Americans.”
As for tangible results of the tour, Schmuhl noted that he is working with former lieutenant governor nominee Christina Hale on candidate recruitment, as well as with district and county chairs. “We feel good at where we are,” Schmuhl said.
Asked if anything stood out from any of the tour stops, Schmuhl said that the events drew some independents and Republicans. “It was like bringing back some Pete Buttigieg in Iowa events,” he said. “Some people were independents and former Republicans. That’s great. We need to engage core supporters, but the way to win elections is building market share.”
Schmuhl is facing an Indiana GOP on the proverbial UCLA 88-game winning streak in 1974 that Notre Dame broke. He just needs a Dwight Clay moment to break through to the victory column.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.