People know what happened. Buttigieg struck a chord with Democratic activists in early 2019, building on that success to raise tens of millions of dollars, winning the Iowa caucuses by a tiny bit (though he didn’t never had much credit for it) and then, like all the other Democrats in the race, quickly faded when Joe Biden took control of the race.
Buttigieg is now transportation secretary, helping to implement bipartisan infrastructure legislation and persuading American voters to pay tribute to President Biden for doing so. Schmuhl is back in Indiana as chairman of the state’s Democratic Party. You can guess who has the toughest job.
Over coffee recently, Schmuhl spoke about the challenges — and realities — of trying to restore strength to a state party that once boasted elected officials such as the late Birch Bayh, who served in the Senate and s is presented for the presidency; his son Evan Bayh, who was both governor and senator; Frank O’Bannon, who served as governor; and most recently Joe Donnelly, who served as a senator from 2013 to 2019. Donnelly’s victory in 2012 was the last year an Indiana Democrat won a statewide contest. Indiana’s current political complexion is best represented as the home of former Vice President Mike Pence.
Schmuhl, who once worked at the Washington Post before turning to politics, now leads a somewhat nomadic life, traveling across his state, trying to generate excitement, draw attention to Democratic priorities , to instill a year-round culture of organizing and to make the case for his party against a more robust Republican opposition. “We’re like the Rolling Stones,” he said. “We will always be on tour.”
Indiana has 92 counties, and local organizations are the backbone of the party structure. Schmuhl said that, like many other Republican-leaning states, the county’s Democratic parties “have just been completely decimated.” They are against the ropes.
When former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was chairman of the Democratic National Committee more than a decade ago, he promoted the idea of a 50-state campaign. His argument was that party building should not be limited to the relative handful of states that decide presidential elections. For the Democrats to be competitive throughout the ballot, they had to be constantly visible and compete everywhere.
Dean’s theory made sense, but since he was party leader, Democrats have seen their ranks weakened rather than strengthened in many states. As models for what he hopes to do in Indiana, Schmuhl cited party-building efforts in Wisconsin, Michigan and, what he called the “crown jewel,” Georgia, where Stacey Abrams led the efforts that helped Biden win in November 2020 and elect two Democrats to the US Senate months later.
Wisconsin and Michigan have often given their electoral votes to Democratic presidential candidates, and Georgia’s changing demographics have moved that state in the direction of the Democrats. Indiana has no such history, despite Barack Obama winning the state in 2008. For Schmuhl, the challenges are daunting.
As the nation has sorted itself into red and blue territory, places where Democrats were once competitive in state races have become more solidly Republican. Indiana shares this trend with several other northern states (some states, of course, have moved the other way).
What these now solidly red northern states have in common is that they have predominantly white and generally older populations. Geographically, they are heavily rural or populated with small towns apart from a few urban enclaves. Culture war issues and the divides they have produced add to the challenges for Democrats trying to get back to competitiveness.
Many of these states have long voted for Republican presidential candidates but, like Indiana, have elected Democrats as governors or senators. Today, winning a Senate race in one of those states has become extremely difficult, which, in turn, has made it harder for Democrats to win and hold a majority in the Senate.
Any turnaround for Democrats must include revitalizing the Democratic Party at the grassroots level, a task complicated by the image of a national party that cares less about rural and small-town voters. Schmuhl says a priority is simply to be visible. “You have to start communicating with people, giving them a choice,” he said, “and so I think showing up is first and foremost.”
He cited his experiences working for Buttigieg and Donnelly. “They both had a central goal in their approach to politics, which is you go everywhere,” he said. “If you’re invited to something, you try to show up and talk to anybody. You answer the tough questions. You just introduced yourself here.
Schmuhl sees two possible paths for Democrats to start making gains, though neither presents an easy path to success. The first is the possibility of Republicans swinging so far to the right, and so deep into Donald Trump’s conspiratorial politics, that there will be a backlash from voters.
That has yet to happen in Indiana or, for that matter, other red states, where GOP legislatures have pushed the envelope with new laws on voting rights, education, abortion and other cultural issues. Schmuhl remains hopeful that things could still turn out. “Republican rule is a double-edged sword,” he said. “You can go this far and you kind of tip over.”
He pointed to the fact that in Indiana this year, about two dozen sitting Republican lawmakers, including some committee chairmen, face such primary challenges, many of them candidates with Trumpian agendas. “I think every day on their side, it’s really kind of a split between the far-right MAGA crowd and the establishment Republicans.”
Schmuhl also thinks Democrats can attract more voters with a bold economic platform, though the party has had limited success trying to win back some of the white voters they’ve lost over the past two decades. In these areas, the Democrats’ economic message has not been able to prevail over cultural issues, but Schmuhl plans to continue to fight on this front.
Schmuhl said one of the big challenges is tackling misinformation and misinformation, especially from conservative outlets, including Fox News. He received money from the Democratic National Committee to fund a war room position “for me to research innovative ways to combat misinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news, all of that stuff,” he said. he declared.
Schmuhl hopes to see progress eventually but knows it will take time. “I’m not naive that it’s going to change things instantly,” he said of the work he started. This year, the political winds are blowing against Democrats, even in places less red-hot than Indiana. Next year, Indiana will have local elections, and he expects Democrats to do better in those contests.
That will set up 2024, when Indiana has an open race for governor, a Senate race featuring Sen. Mike Braun (R), who beat Donnelly in 2018, and, of course, the presidential race, which will draw all more attention and more voters turned out. “If we’ve done some of these foundational pieces here,” Schmuhl said, “hopefully that’s when you start to see a lot of progress.”