How Mike Schmuhl wants to rebuild the Indiana Democratic Party

"We are a team that hasn't made the tourney in a while and we got to get back into the tournament."

Mike Schmuhl often compares Indiana Democrats to the Cleveland Browns: A franchise badly in need of a rebuild. But when I ask him about that comparison after he won a four-year term as the new chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party Saturday, he tells me that metaphor is no longer timely.

“We’re in March madness,” the 38-year-old former campaign manager and for Pete for America says. “I have to go into basketball mode: So, there are no Indiana teams left in March Madness. I do sort of feel like a coach right now: It’s a rebuilding year. And we are a team that hasn’t made the tourney in a while, and we got to get back into the tournament. And so, I really believe that this off-year, as we get around the corner from COVID, nothing on the ballot, that this is the year when we start to raise those resources. Hire that team, come up with that game plan and then get people kind of in their positions so they can start practicing and they can start executing.”

If anyone can rebuild the Indiana Democrats, it's Schmuhl. In 2010, Schmuhl managed then-Rep. Joe Donnelly’s reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2011, he managed Pete Buttigieg’s campaign for South Bend mayor, later serving as his first chief of staff. He has also advised the Congressional campaigns of Shelli Yoder in the 9th Congressional District and Mel Hall in the Second Congressional District. He also brings national experience, having worked with the Democratic consulting firm 270 Strategies, and as a producer at The Washington Post for Chris Cilizza's The Fix franchise.

Indeed, Schmuhl is walking into the hardest—most thankless—job in Indiana politics: Indiana Democrats are in the wilderness. They haven’t won a statewide election since 2012 when former Sen. Joe Donnelly defeated Richard Mourdock, and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz beat Republican incumbent Tony Bennett.

In an interview with IMPORTANTVILLE, Schmuhl talked about recruiting a U.S. Senate candidate for 2022, rebuilding the party from the ground up, and whether Pete Buttigieg changed the game for the future of the party in Indiana.

What are your first actions as the new chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party? What’s on your agenda for the next few weeks? 

The big picture is just getting started, getting my bearings. I had a strong vote of confidence from the State Central Committee on Saturday to become our chair, so I’m really honored to be in the role. I’m getting up to speed and reading and working with the team.

But that’s the number one goal: I want to start to raise money and raise the resources to be competitive. I want to enlarge the budget for our party so we can fund some of the programs that we want to do in the months and years ahead. So that’s number one. Number two would be expanding our team at IDP. We’re a small but mighty team, and I’d like to raise the money to grow that team and bring on more people in specialized roles. You’re only as good as your team. I’m only one person, and so I want to bring more and more people to our party.

And then number three is really kind of devising that long-term strategy. And that plan that I talked about when I was running for the post. And so I’ll be talking with Hoosier Democrats all across the state for the next few weeks to listen. Also to share my ideas and come up with that game plan so we can start to hit the ground running.

The top of the ticket Indiana Democrats face in 2022 is the U.S. Senate race. Sen. Todd Young has announced his re-election, and he’s going to be a formidable candidate. Have you had conversations with potential challengers, and how do you see the field as you try to recruit candidates?

I would say that those conversations are just getting started, so it’d be a little premature for me to give a take on it right now. But I’ll be having conversations with prospective candidates here over the next few days and weeks.

Have you talked with your former boss, State Sen. Shelli Yoder, D-Bloomington, about a bid? 

I think Shelli is a great candidate for any race, and it was a joy to work with her back in 2016. I know she’s just gotten started as a State Senator, and I haven’t talked with her about this race, but I know she’s fantastic.

Who do you think are some of the key people that will help bring the Indiana Democratic Party into 2022? 

We added about nine new members to the State Central Committee over the last ten days. And so there are some great leaders on that committee who I think will give us some good ideas and give me some sound advice. Mayor Jerome Prince of Gary, I think, is a great leader, and he is going to work with our party and making sure that we maximize our efforts in Lake County. You look at a young Democratic leader like Arielle Brandy, who’s here in my hometown, someone who worked on the Pete for America campaign, she’s got a lot of ideas, she’s fantastic. And I was really honored to have her support really early on.

I think that Joe Donnelly, my first boss in politics, has such a good head on his shoulders and cares so much about our party in our state that he’ll always be somebody who has not just good advice, but the actual lived experiences of being a member of Congress and a member of the Senate. So he’s always got great ideas.

I want to use this position to bridge generations, too. And there are a lot of Hoosier Democrats who have great ideas which have counseled me over the years. Another person who’s been great is Patti Yount in North Vernon, Indiana. She’s on the DNC Committee now. Thinking of ways we can engage rural voters, I think will be really critical, and so she’s another voice.

And, of course, there’s Marion County. Looking to Congressman André Carson and Mayor Joe Hogsett for advice, occasionally, will be important. All those aside, I think grassroots energy and the groups that are out there now, I think people are hungry and excited for a new vision for our party. That’s probably the biggest thing that I learned while I was running. There are a lot of groups out there, legacy groups and groups that have been created over the last few years because of perceived need or frustration. And I look forward to collaborating and coordinating with those groups because if we maximize our effort, I think we can do some really great things.

You’ve said 2021 would be a rebuilding year for the party. 

Midterms are historically tough for a first-term president. But just look at what Joe Biden has been able to accomplish in just a few months on the job: The American Rescue Plan is going to help millions of Americans, vaccinations, just across our country are going up and up and up. This summer and this fall, it’s going to be, I think, pretty amazing people are going to be back at work. Kids are going to be back in school, people are going to be able to go to events and some social gatherings again, and that’s not partisan, that’s not political. That’s just us back to healthy and productive lives across our country. And so, my hope is that in 2022, we can start to get a little bit of lift with our races across the state. And then you go into the municipals ’23, and then you’re in another presidential year. And so I do like our timing, and I like what’s on our calendar.

What role will Buttigieg World play in the revitalization of the Indiana Democratic Party?

Well, he himself, right now in his position, can’t be involved in politics. But you’re right; there are a lot of people from our campaign who are off and doing really amazing things. We hired, at the end of the day, just short of 600 people and had the largest campaign in Indiana history. And those folks, many of those folks, came to South Bend or Indiana and got to see our state and my hometown, our hometown. And I think that it was sort of a badge of honor to be a Hoosier for a while. And now those folks are off and doing different things. And so I think the Pete, quote-unquote, “campaign tree” is young, but it’s growing, and it’s growing really, really quickly. And I hope to bring a little bit of that excitement to our state party. We were able to do some things on the Pete for America campaign that were really kind of different, innovative, fun, refreshing. And my hope is that a lot of Hoosiers will embrace that and gravitate towards what the Indiana Democratic Party can mean for them.

You’re widely hailed as one of the nicest guys in politics. Is that a liability as a state party chairman? How are you going to deal with that in terms of the tone of press releases going after Indiana Republicans? 

I think the biggest thing is offering people an alternative and offering people a true choice. That’s not partisan or super political. It’s, ‘Here’s what you get with supermajorities in both [chambers in the Statehouse].’ ‘Here’s what you get with sort of dominant [Republican] control in government for years,’ and ‘here’s what we’ll offer you if that isn’t the case.’ And I do believe deep down that a majority of Hoosiers can side with us if we just offer them those alternatives. And we’re a big, broad, bold, welcoming party.

I look at places like Kansas, Wisconsin, and Kentucky, all states that had sort of controversial Republican governors, right? There was this sense of overreach and extremism and unfairness; now, all three of those states have Democratic governors. And I’d like to think deep down Hoosiers are kind fair, equitable, and their government should reflect those values, I really believe that. And I think that when you have a more balanced government at any level, you’re going to get better ideas, better legislation, better laws, and better outcomes for people. And that’s what we’re fighting for right now.

You’re the first Democratic state party chair from South Bend since Jerry Miller in the 1970s. What does it mean to have representation from that part of the state in this role?

I will tell you an absolutely incredible story that happened this morning, or this afternoon: I went to the dentist at one o’clock, and I’ve had the same dentist from the time I was a little kid. And at 11:00 a.m., the appointment before lunch, before me in the exact same chair was Jerry Miller, the last Democratic state chairman. That’s something.

And my dentist came in, and he said, “You won’t believe this story, but it’s true. It just happened.” And he shook my hand and said, “Congratulations.” And Jerry Miller was mayor, of course, in South Bend in the ’70s. And so there I was, literally sitting in the same chair as the chairman today.

It’s an honor, and I think this is my home and this is my hometown; I grew up here. And I think it’s important for me to take on a role but also be surrounded by friends and family in places that are familiar to me. I also think it’s important for our chairmanship to have people from different parts of the state. Chairman Zody, obviously he’s in Bloomington; I’m from South Bend. I think that it’s good to get different perspectives in the role because there are different pockets of Indiana. We’re one state and one people, but we also have different traditions, and you have different traditions and different parts of our state, and that’s really special.

Have you talked to DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison within the last few days since winning the position? I know that he was one of the reasons why you reconsidered the race.

I haven’t yet. I’ve heard from some DNC staff members, and we’re getting all those other calls, instructions scheduled up, but I do look forward to talking to Chairman Harrison here very soon. I got to know him on the campaign trail in South Carolina, and it’ll be good to work with him again.

You’ll now be a force for Secretary Pete Buttigieg on the DNC and back home here in Indiana. Does your appointment give him more influence? 

I will have the opportunity to serve on the DNC, which is a huge honor. I think the best thing I can do is just represent Indiana and represent our party. I’ve known Pete for a very, very long time, and we do, I think, have. We’re different people, but we have similar styles in some ways. And so I think all I can do is lead by example, make friendships as I represent Indiana, and then kind of go from there.