TERRE HAUTE —
This essay was first published in the March 17 edition of Forefront, a monthly opinion and commentary section of the Indianapolis Business Journal.
A casual glimpse of recent developments in Indiana politics might suggest Hoosiers are in the throes of an identity crisis. As a traditional dead-red state, Indiana produced few surprises. Republicans, for the most part, rule the roost, even with the occasional presence of Democratic governors or slight majority of Dems in the state’s House of Representatives.
So what are we to make of Obama’s 2008 victory in the presidential race in Indiana? Or Joe Donnelly’s capture of what should have been a safe Republican U.S. Senate seat in 2012? Or, perhaps more startling, the failure of social conservatives to obtain their coveted constitutional ban on same-sex marriage this year because of the drift in attitudes among once-reliable supporters in the legislature?
Early in my career, a wise mentor taught me a few things about politics. He preached about cycles and pendulums, and how the electorate balanced itself periodically by making adjustments at the ballot box. He said the only sure thing in politics was that the pendulum would continue to swing, and when things go badly, corrections would likely arrive with the next election cycle.
While more pronounced on the national level, similar cycles occur in Indiana. They are, however, far more subtle. The pendulum swings, but not very far.
The shocking Obama victory in Indiana in 2008 — the first time since 1964 that a Democrat had carried the state in a presidential race — is understandable if viewed in the proper light. Ditto for Donnelly’s unexpected Senate win. Even the failure of the same-sex marriage ban amendment to make it to the election ballot this year reflects Hoosiers being Hoosiers rather an impending change in attitude or ideology.
The presidential election of 2008 occurred during an economic meltdown the likes of which America had not experienced since the Great Depression. The Republican Party was largely blamed for that recession. Even traditional red states found themselves titling — temporarily — toward the Democrats. Being a neighbor of Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois undoubtedly contributed to Indiana’s narrow entry into the winner’s column.
In 2012, Indiana voters also re-established their independence from the red-state tag by electing Donnelly to the U.S. Senate. Hoosiers almost always favor Republicans in these races, but will draw the line if they view a candidate as too extreme. Such was the case with GOP nominee Richard Mourdock, who defeated six-term incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar in a tea-party fueled primary. The more moderate base of the Indiana Republican Party teamed with Democrats to opt instead for Donnelly, who by no stretch can be called a liberal. In fact, those who track his votes call him among the most likely members of Congress to not vote with his party.
Social conservatives have influence, but they don’t control the Republican Party. That was never more true than in the recent debate over the same-sex marriage ban amendment. The proposed amendment was changed, thereby delaying its path to implementation, because some conservative Republicans rebelled at the original language. Society’s views toward same-sex relationships have changed. Republicans are part of this evolution in attitude.
Are Hoosiers becoming more conservative or liberal? Neither. Hoosiers are marching in place, reacting to events and trends with a wary eye, but willing to bend in the wind when the time is right.
Max Jones is editor of the Tribune-Star in Terre Haute. He is also president of the Indiana Debate Commission, which sponsors and conducts broadcast debates between candidates for major statewide political office.