Aug 19, 2012 | By Chris Sikich firstname.lastname@example.org
Contentious partisan battles have gridlocked the Indiana Statehouse and sidelined legislation for two years, but neither Democrats nor Republicans see the solution in working together.
Instead, they will ask voters to settle the legislative differences at the election booth. Republicans, poised to dominate the state ballot in November with new GOP-drawn districts, hope to achieve a supermajority in the House and Senate. They also expect to keep the governor's office.
Democrats are counting on a last-minute leadership coup to stave off the potential landslide.
Two years of across the aisle fighting have left voters like Ryan Puckett wishing the focus would shift from party politics to compromise. The 39-year-old Indianapolis resident wants Republicans and Democrats to figure out how to fund transit and reasonably protect the environment.
"I feel like partisanship is playing way too big of a role," he said. "We've come to the point where compromise is a dirty word, and it's incredibly frustrating for a guy like me."
Lawmakers will consider a host of issues in 2013, such as mass transit in Central Indiana, school funding to and economic development. The winner at the polls will dictate how those topics are approached.
With U.S. Rep. Mike Pence the front-runner in the governor's race in several polls, both parties are concentrating now on pouring money into battleground districts in the Indiana House and the Indiana Senate. The details of who is behind those dollars and where they will be spent won't be public record until October, when campaign finance reports are due.
Campaign mailers and TV spots are popping up in about a dozen targeted districts scattered throughout the state. Most of the 100 House and 25 Senate districts on the ballot are in solidly Republican or Democrat areas. There are few toss-ups.
Republicans are preparing for wins big enough to sweep through their agenda in 2013. From Pence to individual candidates for office, the GOP is staying on message: It's about improving the economy and job creating. The GOP strategy to boost business includes tax reform and less regulation.
But there's no doubt social issues also are in play. Republicans say they are eager to enact more restrictions on abortion and take the next steps toward instituting a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Some party members, though perhaps not a majority, say they will push issues such as teaching creationism in schools and curbing illegal immigration.
Not that voters would be privy to all of those discussions. The real debate in a legislature ruled by a supermajority could be held behind closed doors. State law would allow Republicans to caucus in private to discuss their strategy for passing legislation.
"If the Republicans have a supermajority and the Democrats can simply be ignored," said Andy Downs, director of the Fort-Wayne based Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, "the fighting will be within the party. On the downside, we won't see all of that because it will happen in the caucus room."
After ruling the Indiana House in eight of the past 11 election cycles, Democrats were if not silenced then certainly ignored in the past two legislative sessions.
They unsuccessfully pushed for more environmental regulations, anti-bullying rules in schools, and more accountability and oversight for the Department of Child Services, which has been criticized for its handling of reports of abused children. Leaders say they will try to push those issues again.
But for the Democrats, this election is about cutting losses. With November looming, they fired former House Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer's election team in August after overthrowing him in July.
New Minority Leader Linda Lawson, Hammond, has charged Rep. Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka, with directing a new election strategy.
The message is clear. Democrats want to convince moderate and independent voters that they need checks and balances in government. By narrowing the focus from every contested district to only the battleground districts, Fry hopes for a realistic outcome -- cutting potential Democrat losses to three or four seats.
"Pat just doesn't know how to run campaigns, point blank," Fry said. "All I can tell you is in 2010 the handwriting was on the wall in August, and he failed to recognize the freight train coming down the tracks."
That year, Republicans won big throughout the country, and Indiana House Democrats lost a dozen seats, ending a 52-48 majority.
It could take several elections, Fry believes, for Democrats to claw their way back to a majority in the Indiana House. And Democrats admit there is no end in sight to the Republicans' long-held majority in the Indiana Senate.
The new maps in both chambers have boosted GOP chances to hold a 37-13 supermajority in the Senate and increase a 60-40 margin in the House. If Republicans can pick up seven more seats in the House, they would have a large enough advantage to pass laws even if House Democrats walk out -- the only recourse for the minority party at the Statehouse the past two years.
Fry has a workable strategy, said Robert Dion, a political professor at the University of Evansville. If Republicans gain supermajorities in both chambers, he said it's likely to be short-lived. After all, the GOP managed to control the House during some sessions in the 1990s and 2000s under Democrat-drawn maps.
"Something will happen that allows the Democrats to claw their way back," Dion said. "They certainly can't get much worse. There is a bottom."
It all has voters like Frank Brems wondering if the system itself is broken.
The 29-year-old Lafayette resident says Republicans seeking a supermajority only makes sense: Political parties are made to promote their agenda. It's a failing, he believes, of the two-party system. He is ready for a system that focuses beyond two points of view.
"If the Democrats were in charge, it's not likely to get any better," he said. "They like to do things their own way. If we had more than two parties, we might actually have to have a dialogue."
Fundraising is the name of the game
In races from the Capitol to the edges of the state, fundraising will be as important as message.
Lawson, who did not respond to several interview requests, already has launched a blitz to appeal to potential donors. With the leadership change, Democrats likely are playing catch-up with Republicans in the race for dollars.
Looking back two years, Republicans outspent Democrats $7.8 million to $7.2 million on House races and $2.3 million to $1.7 million on Senate races.
Democrats' hopes are on urban areas, such as Indianapolis, Gary, South Bend and Evansville.
Republicans are pinning their chances on the suburbs and large swaths of rural land that dominate Indiana's landscape.
Primary races offer a glimpse of party confidence. Democrats didn't bother to field a candidate in 25 of 100 House Districts. Republicans, by contrast, didn't field candidates in 15 races. Both parties have since filled out their ballots with appointments.
Before the primary, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, admitted Republicans were eyeing a supermajority in the House. Now, he says Democrats about-face on strategy could impact the election.
He is confident Republicans will keep their majority in the House, but he says obtaining the super majority will be difficult. And he does plan to release specific policy stances in coming months.
"It's going to be an interesting three months," he said.
Some voters want Republicans to dominate state government.
Larry Kehoe, 48, Carmel, believes they should try to win as many seats as possible, believing that will lead to smaller and more efficient government.
"If the people of Indiana are smart enough, they'll want to vote Republican," he said.
Others see room for cooperation. Sam Bridegroom, 46, a Fishers business owner, says the Republican idea to lessen regulations would help him grow his information technology company. It's a real problem, he says.
But creating legislation allowing voters to decide whether to beef up mass transit in Central Indiana would be the biggest boon, he said.
Transit legislation, both parties agree, will need bipartisan support that has so far been elusive.
"The government needs to be worried about things people can't do for themselves," Bridegroom said. "We can buy a car, but we can't buy a firetruck. We can't build roads, we can't buy trains and we can't build public transportation."
Districts to Watch:
After taking control of the Indiana House in 2010 with a 60-40 margin, Republicans are poised to increase their edge. Democrats, though, are counting on new leadership to control losses.
Here are 14 battleground districts key to each party’s success on Election Day:
Jerod Warnock, D-Mishawaka. Dale R. DeVon, R-South Bend.
Thomas C. O’Donnell, D-Highland. Harold (Hal) Slager, R-Schererville.
Rick Cornstuble, D-Lafayette. (I) Randy Truitt, R-West Lafayette.
Katie Morgan, D-Marion. (I) Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City.
Mark C. Spelbring, D-Rockville. Alan P. Morrison, R-Terre Haute.
(I) Clyde Kersey, D-Terre Haute. John Cunningham, R-Terre Haute.
(I) Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes. (I) Bruce Borders, R-Jasonville.
(I) Philip Pflum, D-Milton. Mark J. Brim, L-Richmond. Richard (Dick) Hamm, R-Richmond. William Eric Atkinson, R-Pershing. (write in).
(I) Peggy Welch, D-Bloomington. Peggy Mayfield, R-Martinsville.
Jim McCormick, D-Seymour. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour.
Michael (Mike) Schriefer, D-Santa Claus. Lloyd Arnold, R-Leavenworth.
W. Trent Van Haaften, D-Mount Vernon. (I) Wendy (Mac) McNamara, R-Mount Vernon.
(I) Winfield C. Moses, Jr., D-Fort Wayne. Alexander “Alex” Avery, L-Fort Wayne. Martin Carbaugh, R-Fort Wayne.
Justin Moed, D-Indianapolis. AJ Feeney-Ruiz, R-Indianapolis.
Follow Star reporter Chris Sikich on Twitter at twitter.com/ChrisSikich. Call him at (317) 444-6036.
Shifting of Power
Control of the Indiana House has shifted back and forth in the past two decades, with Democrats, who drew legislative maps in 1990 and 2000, generally coming out on top. Republicans drew new districts in 2011. House lawmakers are elected to two-year terms.
Here's a look at the election results:
1988: 50 Democrats, 50 Republicans.
1990: 52 Democrats, 48 Republicans.
1992: 55 Democrats, 45 Republicans.
1994: 56 Republicans, 44 Democrats.
1996: 50 Democrats, 50 Republicans.*
1998: 53 Democrats, 47 Republicans.
2000: 53 Democrats, 47 Republicans.
2002: 51 Democrats, 49 Republicans.
2004: 52 Republicans, 48 Democrats.
2006: 51 Democrats, 49 Republicans.
2008: 52 Democrats, 48 Republicans.
2010: 60 Republicans, 40 Democrats.
*Democrats were in control because of a change in state law that gives control to the party that wins the governor's office when it's on the ballot or the secretary of state's office when it's on the ballot.
--Mary Beth Schneider