How Mike Schmuhl is taking Pete Buttigieg's go-everywhere approach to Indiana

"This is not an off year for us."

Mike Schmuhl. Photo credit: Drew Anderson.

In the weeks before his former boss’s victory in the Iowa Caucuses last February, Mike Schmuhl and the upper echelon of Pete Buttigieg’s campaign advisers made a strategic bet.

Buttigieg mostly steered clear of big cities like Des Moines. Instead, they focused on rural counties where he could drive up margins in redder parts of the state. Aboard his blue and yellow campaign bus, I remember cruising past cornfield after cornfield to places like Britt—population 1,973—and stopping at a breakfast dive called Mary Jo’s Hobo House, in deep-red Iowa. No burg was left behind.

Now at the helm of the Indiana Democratic Party, an organization that hasn’t produced a winning statewide candidate since 2012, Schmuhl is applying that same principle to rebuilding the party on a county-by-county basis. Instead of dispatching his candidates to places like the HoBo House in Britt, Iowa, Schmuhl is sending people like former Congressman Baron Hill to places like the Chicken House in Sellersburg, Indiana.

In touting President Biden’s American Rescue Plan and its $5.8 billion windfall to Indiana, Schmuhl and a rotating cast of Indiana Democrats visited 25 counties—drawing Hoosiers from 40 different counties—a number of them in deeply rural and red parts of the state.

What did the off-year tour accomplish? Democrats say they didn’t track attendance at each event. But in addition to more than 30 earned-media hits and a smattering of front-page stories around the state, the tour served as sort of a spring training for some of the party’s highest-profile figures, including former U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, and former Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Jennifer McCormick, among others. “It also helped to show that we're going to go everywhere,” Schmuhl told me. “We're not going to take the community for granted, red or blue, depending on their voting history.”

(In a statement to IMPORTANTVILLE, Indiana Republican Party chairman Kyle Hupfer, a potential gubernatorial candidate himself in 2024, threw cold water on the tour. “Hoosiers don’t need a tour to know what’s happened in Indiana,” Hupfer told IMPORTANTVILLE. “They have witnessed Governor Holcomb’s leadership daily through the pandemic. They have seen Republican governors, legislators and local elected officials lead with principles and solution-oriented policies for years. And many remember that it was Republicans who led Indiana out of Democrat-cause debt and disfunction. Decades of Republican leadership mean something and Hoosiers have great memories.” No Indiana Republican in the congressional delegation voted for the legislation.)

Here, in an interview with IMPORTANTVILLE, Schmuhl reflects on the tour, his first months as party chairman, and what comes next for his rebuild project.

What is your takeaway from this tour?

I think at the end of the day, we visited 25 counties, with support from 40. Some counties helped, in tandem with their neighbors, to help organize.

To me, I think it is showing—not just telling—that the Indiana Democratic Party is on offense, and that this is not an off year for us. And so, we went through a presidential year and are still getting out of a global pandemic that altered lives for every Hoosier, every American, and we wanted to come out of that, during my first few weeks as chair on the road and talk with fellow Democrats and other folks. I liken it to a spring training period. We haven't really played the game in a while and now we're getting back out there and working out the kinks.

There was a certain element of the optics where the tour seemed to function as a tryout for figures in the party who could potentially be candidates for higher office in the future.

I think our tour served a number of purposes. It was the American Rescue Plan tour, and that was definitely the headline. And we wanted to spread the good news about what that package includes for Hoosiers and Americans, but you're right, it allowed us to get different folks into the rotation, so to speak.

Former elected officials. Current elected officials. People who might be potential candidates down the line, for higher office. So it really did serve those purposes. I will say, though: It also helped with organizing efforts. Working with a county party and volunteers to organize an event. We went through 2020 and weren't really able to do that: door-to-door or events in person. So it helped there and it also helped to show that we're going to go everywhere. That we're not going to take the community for granted, red or blue, depending on their voting history. And lastly, I think it helped us get a lot of great media attention, just to show we're on offense: Here's what Democrats are doing for you in Washington and in Indianapolis. And it helped us freshen up, spruce up our message as we go around the state and talk to people and urge them to come to our side.

Joe Donnelly seemed to be the tour's biggest draw. What does that portend for his political future?

Well, people love Joe. Among folks who have worked for him over the years, myself included, his nickname is Joe Diesel. Because he just doesn't stop going, doesn't stop moving. And that was very apparent with our tour. He was willing to roll up his sleeves and hit the road and get to work. And he was really excited, I think, to go around the state that he loves so much and talk with people about what Joe Biden's doing as our president.

There's a growing consensus that he may run for governor in 2024. Have you talked with him about that?

I don't want to make any news on that front. But Joe, obviously, was a great Senator for our state and would be great as an elected official in the future.

As this tour was happening, one of your Northwest Indiana mayors, Thomas McDermott, the longest-serving mayor of Hammond, was making some news about a possible 2022 Senate bid. Have you talked with him about a Senate campaign?

Not in depth. I have been over to Lake County a few times to meet with Democrats over there. It's close, about an hour away from my hometown. And I do want to be clear, there are other folks that have tossed their hat in the ring and, or interested in running, but I think mayor Tom would be a compelling candidate. He's a mayor who is on the ground, getting things done for people every day. He's a veteran and I think that having a vet on vet match up [with former Marine and incumbent Sen. Todd Young] and talking about January 6th, would be intriguing. And also, I think that he's forceful. I think he's aggressive. And I think that in this day and age that goes a long way if you're trying to talk with people and engage in a spirited campaign.

Is there any concern with this American Rescue Tour that you're tying yourselves to the Biden agenda so early on ahead of a midterm election that is likely to be difficult for Democrats facing a headwind, particularly in places like Indiana?

I think that the American Rescue Plan was essential and—we've seen—is hugely popular, to the tune of 70% around the country. The last statistics that I saw on the [American] Jobs Plan was that its popularity was around 68%. These are packages that are hugely popular with the American people. It's just, can our government deliver? And I think that what Joe Biden is doing as our president is truly building back better, and resetting our domestic and foreign priorities. And so I'm happy to run on that agenda and run on that platform. And I share it almost every time I travel around the state. I'm looking forward to a time this fall, where parents are back at work, kids are back at school and life is back to normal for the vast majority of Hoosiers. And I cannot think of a better platform to run on than that.

What should close observers of your turnaround effort for Indiana Democrats watch for next?

I guess I'll just keep using baseball analogies. We have a doubleheader. We're in intermission right now. We're ready to start the sequel. And so we've had great success traveling around the state, talking about the Rescue Plan.

And then we want to turn the corner and start to talk about the Jobs Plan and the benefit that will bring to Indiana and our country. I also think we saw some great news out of Washington recently, that it looks like we're on track for a bipartisan infrastructure deal. And that would be very welcome news for our state.

How much of that accomplishment do you attribute to the work your former boss, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, has done on Capitol Hill and across the nation, in selling that jobs plan?

I think he's done a great job and, he's in the sidecar with Joe Biden and they worked through this package. I also think fellow Hoosier and great guy, Ron Klain, as White House Chief of Staff, is doing a fantastic job. So it helps to have Hoosiers working hard on these issues, to get them done for the American people.