In 2020, Indiana found itself at the center of some of the year’s major political stories, including the end of one of the most unprecedented presidential campaigns in history, the site of one of the most contested congressional races in the country, and the home of the newest U.S. Supreme Court justice who could define the high court in a new era.
Here, amid photos that capture the year that was, a list of the 10 stories that shaped Indiana—and national—politics in a bizarre, topsy-turvy year.
10. Attorney General Curtis Hill’s law license suspended after groping case
Hill, a Black Republican and the onetime top-vote getter in Indiana electoral history on a glide path to national prominence, faced a 30-day suspension after groping four women, including a state lawmaker and legislative staffers, at a booze-fueled party marking the end of the 2018 legislative session. A pol who had fashioned himself as a ‘Fox & Friends’-friendly guest in the Trump era, Hill’s high-profile case opened the door for Democrats to mount a well-funded campaign challenge for the attorney general’s seat by former Ivy Tech Community College Southwest chancellor Jonathan Weinzapfel—not to mention four Republican challengers. Indiana Republicans would nominate former U.S. Rep Todd Rokita to take his spot on the ballot, and Rokita romped to a 16-point route of his Democratic opponent, laying the path to a possible 2024 gubernatorial bid.
INDIANAPOLIS—** LEFT IMAGE** A general view of the race during the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 23. This year's race was run without fans in attendance due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. **RIGHT IMAGE** Fans watch the action during the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
9. Jim Banks wins chairmanship of the Republican Study Committee
Banks—an avatar of the Trump-era transformation of the Republican Party who went from supporting the president “with reservations” to calling him “the greatest president of my lifetime” in three short years—takes a position once held by Vice President Mike Pence. “As the heart and soul of the conservative movement in the House, RSC is stronger than ever as we lead the fight for conservative values and push back against the radical socialist wing that controls the Democrat Party today,” Banks said. “We will have our work cut out for us, but I won’t back down from the fight!” The Republican has ensconced himself as a regular cable news talker and has articulated better than anyone what a post-Trump presidency GOP might sound like.
“If we’re learning the lessons that President Trump taught us, to appeal to the populace base and bring new voters in the Republican Party, we need to tackle a new subset of issues to the conservative movement,” he told The Hill in November. “And that is this broader theme of appealing to working-class voters. It's related to drawing from the lessons of the last four years: how you rebuild manufacturing jobs in America, putting American workers first in trade deals, and immigration policy. Those are areas where the Republican Study Committee has not been as involved in before. And I want to lead us to take an active role and articulating where the conservative movement stands and where we go now after the 2020 election.”
CHESTERTON, Ind. - MAY 13: A sign on the door of Flannery's Tavern lets customers know the business is still closed on May 13 in Chesterton, Indiana. Recently, Indiana began allowing some businesses in the state to reopen with some restrictions. The governor had issued a stay-at-home in March, restricting all but essential travel and shuttering all but essential businesses in an attempt to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this order being lifted many businesses remain closed and many, that have re-opened, report lackluster business as fears of COVID-19 continue. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
8. Trump holds a vice-like grip on Indiana’s political psyche
The outgoing president won Indiana by 16 points in 2020 compared to 19 points in 2016, as President-elect Joe Biden won in only five of the state’s 92 counties. It’s the kind of statement win that has Indiana Democrats bearish about the next four years—and beyond. Notably, several parts of the state moved away from Trump: Fort Wayne, for example, situated in the deep-red Indiana 3rd Congressional District, saw one of the nation’s biggest swings against Trump.
7. Indiana Democrats remain in the wilderness
Entering 2021, Indiana Democrats continue to hold no statewide seats. Some 88 percent of county-elected offices statewide are held by Republicans.
After November, 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.
One of the defining stories of 2021 will be whether Hoosier Democrats can rebuild their party on a county-by-county basis and find a new party leader who can guide them out of the political wilderness.
“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,” outgoing Indiana Democratic Party John Zody said, pointing to changing battlegrounds in suburban cities such as Carmel and Fishers, which Biden won this week.
INDIANAPOLIS—Protesters stand on the street while holding placards during the demonstration. Protesters gather outside Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb's mansion in the 4700 block of N. Meridian Street, to protest what they are describing as, "Government Overreach" as businesses, and institutions, continue to be shuttered during the stay-at-home order to combat the spread of COVID-19/Coronavirus in the state.
6. Racial unrest and policy reforms
In the wake of 21-year-old Dreasjon Reed’s shooting here in Indianapolis, as well as several other high-profile instances of police brutality around the nation, no fewer than 19 days of consecutive protests rocked the city in 2020. Three protests over police brutality took place outside of Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett’s house. Hogsett ushered in a change in IMPD’s use-of-force policy and announced a partnership with the NYU School of Law Criminal Justice Lab to create “a new framework for a community-based, data-driven conversation about public safety and policing.”
Whether there will be meaningful statewide reforms in 2021 remains to be seen. In August, Gov. Eric Holcomb declared that Black Lives Matter—an unusual step for a prominent Republican in 2020. “Black lives matter, and so do Black livelihoods,” he said. In November, he appointed the state’s first diversity czar in Karrah A. Herring. “My goal is to better build diversity and foster an inclusive environment within state government and the services we provide so every Hoosier can take full advantage of their gifts and potential,” Holcomb said in a statement.
5. Biden picks a Hoosier for chief of staff
A former chief of staff to two vice presidents who maintains deep ties to Indianapolis and political figures like former Sen. Joe Donnelly, Ron Klain will guide the Biden administration in its first crucial months. Klain’s first gig in politics was working on the late Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh’s 1980 Senate campaign. Klain will have to navigate Democratic infighting and Republican intransigence on major legislative issues such as an infrastructure bill and more Covid relief—all while steering the administration through a pandemic.
INDIANAPOLIS—Klain sits for an interview with the author at IMPORTANTVILLE Live in October 2019 at Half Liter BBQ.
4. Pete Buttigieg becomes the first openly-LGBTQ candidate to win the Iowa Caucuses; and, if confirmed, the first openly-gay Cabinet official, and the youngest since Robert F. Kennedy, who was confirmed at 35 as attorney general.
MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 20: In this screenshot from the DNCC’s livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg addresses the virtual convention on August 20. (Photo by DNCC via Getty Images)
In 2020, Buttigieg defined himself as a Democratic political force for years to come. First, he mounted an unexpected presidential campaign that raised nearly $100 million and trained a generation of new political talent that could shape Indiana politics for years to come. Buttigieg ended his campaign on March 1 where it began: in South Bend. A day later, he endorsed Biden, consolidating the President-elect’s support ahead of Super Tuesday, and gaining leverage for what would later be a Cabinet position. “There’s just no one out there who’s doing more to help Joe Biden, our ticket win than Mayor Pete,” Ron Klain, Biden's incoming chief-of-staff, told Indiana Democrats in a grassroots meeting before the election.
Now, as Transportation Secretary-designate whose nomination was praised by Indiana Republicans such as Sen. Todd Young, a figure to pay close attention to during the former South Bend mayor’s confirmation hearings, Buttigieg could help the Biden administration rebuild a nation depleted by a pandemic with a major infrastructure bill. He could be Biden’s red-state emissary, stumping for infrastructure improvements around the country, including in states such as Indiana. “I value the partnership I’ve had with Pete and am always pleased to see Hoosiers leading in the nation’s capital,” Holcomb told me earlier this year. “Improving Indiana’s infrastructure has been a top priority of mine and having someone from the Crossroads of America who understands the importance of game-changing projects like extending the West Lake Corridor and double-tracking the South Shore Line will help us take Indiana to the next level.”
3. Sen. Todd Young defends the Republican Senate majority
Indiana’s senior senator—who chaired the National Republican Senatorial Campaign— capped off what will be remembered as a seminal year for Republicans, from winning a conservative majority on the Supreme Court to holding the line on the Senate (with Jan 5’s Georgia runoff elections still pending).
Young was more successful than the late Sen. Richard Lugar, his former boss, in his own turn as chair of the committee: Lugar lost two seats during the 1984 cycle. To be certain, no other Hoosier pol had a better year than Young or Buttigieg.
In a barn-red state, Young is set up for an easy 2022 re-election campaign, which will kick off next year. Meanwhile, Indiana Democrats will spend much of 2021 searching for a candidate willing to walk into what is sure to be a Republican buzzsaw.
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30: Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) and Seventh U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, greet each other with elbow bumps as she prepares for her confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill on September 30 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images)
2. Amy Coney Barrett nominated and confirmed as Supreme Court associate justice
South Bend saw no shortage of klieg lights cast upon it in 2020, with the national media moving its hot glare from Buttigieg’s record in South Bend in January to staking out Amy Coney Barrett’s house in a leafy neighborhood near Notre Dame by October. The law professor cemented a 6-3 conservative majority on the high court that could last for a generation.
Indiana Sens. Todd Young and Mike Braun played a pivotal role in her controversial confirmation—with Young leading efforts in her selection and nomination. Young told me it helped Republicans retain the U.S. Senate. “Most Americans over the course of the hearings, we saw in poll numbers, were supportive of her confirmation, and they, of course, the Democrats didn’t want to break their base from the mainstream independents and Republicans that they needed to win over in order to be successful,” Young said in November.
1. Hoosiers guide coronavirus task force response; a pandemic disproportionately ravages their home state
When the authoritative history of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response is written, Hoosiers will be the leading characters—for better or worse. The 22-person task force was 20 percent Hoosier, thanks to Vice President Mike Pence’s efforts to stock the administration, particularly the Department of Health and Human Services, with figures from Indiana. Whether it was HHS Secretary Alex Azar or Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Indiana figures were on the frontlines of the pandemic. Pence was part of at least two notable moments: first, when he declared in a June Wall Street Journal op-ed that “There Isn't a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave’”; and second when he modeled the safety of the coronavirus vaccine by taking it on national television.
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 18: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence receives a COVID-19 vaccine to promote the safety and efficacy of the vaccine at the White House on December 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, back in Indiana, where there have been more than 8,000 presumptive deaths from the novel coronavirus, the pandemic exposed a state that frequently lags the nation in key measures of public health—Indiana routinely is among the worst in state rankings of the prevalence of obesity and tobacco use, both compounders of the virus—Covid-19 exposed a state public health system that is frequently cited as among the worst in the nation: America’s Health Rankings 2019 report by United Health Foundation found that Indiana ranked second-to-last place, alongside Arizona and Ohio, and just ahead of Nevada, in per-capita spending on public health, about $53 a person.
In the 2021 legislative session, Holcomb has listed public health as one of five areas of focus, including “initiating a comprehensive assessment of local health departments and state delivery of public health services.” When I asked Holcomb about Indiana’s underfunded public health system earlier this year, he told me: “A lot of the world will be different, come next year or next month. We’re going to be in a reconstruction phase coming out of this. This is the toughest thing that, dare I say, any of us in our lifetimes have dealt with or ever will again.”