Indiana Democrats remain in the wilderness

State Party Chairman John Zody said Friday he does not plan to seek another term following bruising losses. Can the party find its way?

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said Friday he does not plan to seek another term following bruising losses at the ballot box this week, as Hoosier Democrats called for a new direction for the party—from messaging to fundraising.

“I think that’s easier sort of said than done,” Zody said. “People say we need a new direction with a new plan but, like, show me some details about what you’re thinking because I’m all about changing plans and I think we’ve done that, over the years.”

Ahead of his comments, Democrats lamented what they saw as a lost campaign cycle, including losing statewide races for governor and attorney general, a contested 5th Congressional District race, and a slew of state legislative seats.

“There’s a lot of blame to go around: on candidates like myself, historically wrong polling, Trump sucking the oxygen out of any nuanced political discourse, and the stunning irrelevance of the Indiana Democratic Party,” said Chris Chyung, Indiana’s first Asian-American state lawmaker, who has been hailed as an example of the party’s future and represents House District 15 but lost to Republican Hal Slager who held the seat from 2012 to 2018.

Chyung, of Dyer, attributed some of the party’s poor performance in this week’s elections to a lack of relevant messaging and a perceived tilt to the left.

“Even the folks who were endorsed by the police, like myself, got branded as ‘defund the police-ers,” Chyung said. “The state party had no message to bridge the divide between Black Lives Matter and law enforcement supporters. It’s no wonder that so many incumbents went down when the top of the ticket couldn’t even get a third of the damn vote. It’s a miracle that more seats were not lost. We need to focus on pocketbook issues that actually matter, not purity tests.”

Chyung also leveled criticism at Zody, who has led the party since 2013 and whose term expires March 20. “Any party chair who looks back at an election in which the top of the ticket couldn’t even get a third of the vote and expected to break a legislative supermajority but instead lost 4 seats, would be delusional to remain in power,” Chyung said.

MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 18: In this screenshot from the DNC’s live stream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Delegates from Indiana with Former Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg addresses the virtual convention on August 18, 2020. The convention, which was once expected to draw 50,000 people to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is now taking place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by DNCC via Getty Images) (Photo by Handout/DNCC via Getty Images)

Another Democratic source —granted anonymity to speak freely—also laid the party’s circumstances at Zody’s feet. “John Zody has led the party into the political wilderness,” this person said. “Lost two statewide officeholders, lost every statewide election, failed to win a single congressional seat, went backward in the aggregate in the Legislature. [Gubernatorial nominee] Woody Myers was a bad candidate, but he has simply put an exclamation point on 8 years of Zody’s failings. As if Zody getting embarrassed nearly 4-1 when he primaried a popular female candidate for State Senate. The path to rebuilding the party starts with excising John Zody.”

In a call with reporters Friday, Zody said he took full responsibility for the party’s poor performance and pointed to national headwinds for down-ballot Democrats.

“Of course I’m disappointed, largely about our results here in Indiana. I think there’s a national trend that impacted our down-ballot races,” Zody said, pointing to changing battlegrounds in suburban cities such as Carmel and Fishers, which Biden won this week.

Democratic party insiders also argue an overhaul of the party’s platform is necessary.

“The platform needs to be beefed up to appeal more to working-class Hoosiers,” said a Hoosier Democratic strategist granted anonymity to offer a frank assessment. “The ‘Democratic’ label is so quickly tied to the national picture that any Democrat running immediately faces headwinds and attacks on Pelosi, socialism, the squad, taxation, job-killing, etc. We need to have our candidates work on more message coordination on issues that might be a little out of the box for Dems but popular and/or different.”

This person added:

I think the state party needs a clear and coherent strategy that party leaders, elected officials, activists, etc. can get behind. I don’t know if we’ve had a strategy or one that can be easily articulated. I think we need to embrace a style of politics that might not be sexy or what you see on MSNBC or on Twitter. The two most successful Democratic statewide politicians in this decade have been John Gregg and Joe Donnelly. They are each an “everyman”— moderate, down-home, easy to talk with, strong with middle of the road folks, likable, and not liberal. That might sound outdated, but I think Hoosiers are attracted to that authenticity. Indiana is also whole hog for Donald Trump. Indiana is more white and has lower education levels than its Midwestern neighbors. While the donut counties are shifting slightly, the rest of the state, especially the south, is very red—it’s been a long time since the days of Lee Hamilton. Dems need a message that moves these smaller counties away from 70-30 and closer to 60-40. Ultimately, the districts will be locked once again for the upcoming decade. It’s going to take the Dems attempting to take the governorship to influence real change across the state and put in motion an apparatus that can wield real power.

Some Democrats say figures such as former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg—whose Win the Era PAC endorsed a number of state and local candidates across the state and is advising former Vice President Joe Biden on his transition—could revive the party here, though it’s unclear what sort of footprint he’ll keep in Indiana should he be tapped for an administration position. “Pete is a world-beater,” this person said. “He’d be competitive in Indiana. Not sure the degree he’s interested in competing here.”

This person also pointed to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, who has also proven to be a prolific fundraiser, and who has been talked about as a possible challenger to Sen. Todd Young in 2022 and a gubernatorial candidate in 2024. “He’s part of the solution if he wants to be,” a senior Hoosier Democrat said.

On Friday, for his part, Zody seemed out of ideas, inviting others to seek his seat if they were interested.

“We just have to keep slogging away,” Zody said Friday. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”