In the wake of a bad election, you can cast blame or look to the future. I did the latter in a recent post for the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Forefront blog:
It’s chilly out here. Some days, it seems like the rain will never end. I wish it was easier to start a fire, but kindling is hard to come by.
Welcome to the wilderness. I’m an Indiana Democrat, and I’d like to leave this place before winter comes.
You don’t need me to tell you that Tuesday night was a rough one for Democrats nationwide and here. You do need me to tell you how we fix it.
Some of what I write here may seem harsh at first blush. I don’t have all the answers. But I can tell you that we have to fundamentally change the way we approach elections if we want to find the pathway back to political success in Indiana.
Borrowing some of former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ 2004 campaign language, here’s my stab at a roadmap to an Indiana Democratic comeback:
The future of our party is in urban and suburban areas. Why? Because progressive people move to cities. I wrote about it after the 2012 election, and Tuesday’s results proved it again.
If we want to take back the Governor’s Office in 2016 or 2020, we have to build a strong brand in densely populated places where our voters live and where moderate voters can be persuaded to vote for smart candidates with vision and ideas.
That effort starts next year with mayoral races across our state. Here in Indianapolis, it should be a lighter lift now that Mayor Greg Ballard has announced he won’t run for a third term. But we’ve got to have strong candidates in other big cities who can make the case that Democrats should be leading because we’re good at governing.
That brings me to what’s probably my most important point.
I have no idea what the Democratic platform was this election cycle. I read the document, but it said nothing. (I can say that because I wrote previous versions of the platform that similarly said nothing, and this version was based on those.)
We have to stand for something, and that doesn’t mean just trotting out tired old clichés about “fighting for our schools” and “protecting our seniors.”
For many years, I was the voice of what we opposed. Now we need to figure out what we’re for. Minimum wage hike? Legalizing marijuana? More local control for schools? Universal pre-K? Criminal code changes? Ethics reform at the Statehouse?
Throw it all out there, and let’s have a conversation.
Oh, and one more thing I feel compelled to note because the “traditional public school” campaign rhetoric failed so completely on Tuesday: Hoosier families like school choice. Get over it, y’all.
We used to be the party that voters trusted on education. We let the Republicans steal the issue away from us because we were more interested in pining for the past and protecting the status quo.
Here’s the incredibly simple equation for a quality education: great teacher + student. Where it happens isn’t important. The type of school isn’t important. If we want parents to trust us with their votes, we have to focus on their kids, not the dollar signs.
Everyone loves to hate money in politics, but try running a campaign without it. For a long time, Indiana Democrats relied on a few flush-with-cash sources to make ends meet. As those wells began to run dry, we backfilled, but we never really approached it strategically.
We have to diversify our funding sources so that we’re not treating our donors like ATMs.
The good news? There’s money out there for candidates who stand for stuff. Here I go again with all that pesky “we need to have new ideas” rhetoric, but if we build an agenda, new money will come.
Recruiting people to run for office, especially in an environment like this one, is a tough task, but there are folks out there who want to be in public service for the right reasons. They want to give back, and they are willing to endure the long, thankless hours for a chance to serve.
If you are running for office for the perks or the power, you don’t get to put your name on the ballot. And that goes for incumbents as well as challengers.
In the races we can win, we have to put outstanding people on the ballot. Our communities are filled with strong, qualified leaders, and some of them are Democrats. We have to persuade them to run.
THE BENCH MATTERS
We lost the Governor’s Office in 2004, and we lost the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office in 2007. Those two offices created generations of political talent.
With legislative maps that prevent us from making any sizable gains at the Statehouse, we have to look elsewhere to grow our bench. Follow me back to my argument that cities are our future.
Not only do we need to recruit high-quality candidates to run for Mayor in every city in Indiana, but we need to use these progressive areas to cultivate new talent. City council members aren’t high-profile, but those offices are a place where young leaders can get their feet wet and learn how to govern.
And I’ll just say this for anyone who’s still reading the Longest Forefront Blog Post Ever: There is no substitute for working in government. You can set up all the leadership training programs you want, but until you’ve been in the trenches, you don’t know how it feels.
SOME THINGS DON’T MATTER
I would love to tell you that we can win down-ticket or off-year statewide offices. Barring an anti-incumbent wave or an outright fluke, winning those offices isn’t in the cards.
Similarly, there are Statehouse and Congressional districts where we just can’t win.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t run people for these offices. In fact, I’d argue that the statewide offices should be another place where we recruit rising stars who know they almost certainly won’t win, but running will help them raise their name ID and win something else (see also: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg).
But when it comes to doling out resources (candidate recruitment efforts, campaign money, staff support, etc.), we have to be particular. We elected Democrats in 2006, 2008 and 2012 because we stayed focused on the races we knew we could win.
That’s a hard thing to do because it requires tough conversations with folks who are running for office for all the right reasons but who just don’t have a path to victory.
Ultimately, though, avoiding the distractions will enable us to rebuild. We can’t do it the same way we’ve always done it, and I know change is hard, but the root word of “progressive” is “progress” – forward movement toward a destination.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been much of a wilderness girl. Let’s get out of this place before the bears eat us.