The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Democrats, flipping red states is hard. Ask this state chair.

Mike Schmuhl ran Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. Now he’s taken on an even bigger challenge.

Mike Schmuhl talks with a reporter in the campaign office of former South Bend mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in South Bend, Ind., on April 12, 2019. (Santiago Flores/South Bend Tribune/AP)
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Mike Schmuhl doesn’t shrink from a challenge. At this time three years ago, he was trying to help an openly gay mayor from a small Midwestern city become president. Today, he’s trying to rebuild the Democratic Party in one of the nation’s reddest Northern states.

Schmuhl grew up in South Bend, Ind. Twenty-five years ago, when he was in the eighth grade, he got to know Pete Buttigieg, who went on to become South Bend’s mayor (with Schmuhl managing the campaign). When Buttigieg sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination — an unlikely ambition on his part — he again turned to the soft-spoken Schmuhl to run his campaign.

People know what happened. Buttigieg struck a chord with Democratic activists early in 2019, built on that success to raise tens of millions of dollars, went on to win the Iowa caucuses by a smidgen (though he never got much credit for it) and then, like all the other Democrats running, faded quickly as Joe Biden took control of the race.

Buttigieg is now transportation secretary, helping to implement the bipartisan infrastructure legislation and persuade American voters to give credit to President Biden for getting it done. Schmuhl is back in Indiana as the chair of the state Democratic Party. You can guess who has the tougher job.

Over coffee recently, Schmuhl talked about the challenges — and realities — of trying to restore the strength of a state party that once boasted elected officials such as the late Birch Bayh, who served in the Senate and ran for president; his son Evan Bayh, who was both governor and senator; Frank O’Bannon, who served as governor; and, most recently, Joe Donnelly, who was senator from 2013 until 2019. Donnelly’s victory in 2012 was the last year any Indiana Democrat won a statewide contest. Indiana’s current political complexion is best represented as being the home of former vice president Mike Pence.

Schmuhl, who once worked at The Washington Post before turning to politics, now leads a somewhat nomadic life, traveling throughout his state trying to generate enthusiasm, attract attention to the Democrats’ priorities, instill a culture of year-round organizing and make the case for his party against a more robust Republican opposition. “We’re like the Rolling Stones,” he said. “We’re always going to be on tour.”

Indiana has 92 counties, and local organizations are the backbone of the party structure. Schmuhl said that as in many other Republican-trending states, the county Democratic parties “have just been completely decimated. They’re up against the ropes.”

When former Vermont governor Howard Dean was Democratic National Committee chair more than a decade ago, he promoted the idea of a 50-state campaign. His argument was that party building should not be limited to the relative handful of states that decide presidential elections. For Democrats to be competitive up and down the ballot, they needed to be visible constantly and compete everywhere.

Dean’s theory made sense, but in the years since he was party leader, the Democrats have seen their ranks weakened rather than strengthened in many states. As models for what he hopes to do in Indiana, Schmuhl cited the party-building efforts in Wisconsin, Michigan and, what he called the “crown jewel,” Georgia, where Stacey Abrams led efforts that helped Biden win in November 2020 and elect two Democrats to the U.S. Senate months later.

Wisconsin and Michigan have often given their electoral votes to Democratic presidential nominees, and the changing demographics of Georgia have moved that state in the Democrats’ direction. Indiana has no such history, although Barack Obama won the state in 2008. For Schmuhl, the challenges are daunting.

As the nation has sorted itself into red and blue territory, places where Democrats once were competitive in state races have become more solidly Republican. Indiana shares this trend with several other Northern states (some states, of course, have moved in the other direction).

What these now solidly red Northern states have in common is that they have predominantly White and generally older populations. Geographically, they are heavily rural or populated with small cities outside a few urban enclaves. Culture war issues and the cleavages they have produced add to the challenges for Democrats trying to make their way back to competitiveness.

Many of these states long voted for Republican presidential nominees but, like Indiana, elected Democrats as governors or senators. Today, winning a U.S. Senate race in any of these states has become extremely difficult, and that, in turn, has made it more difficult for Democrats to gain and hold the majority in the Senate.

Any turnaround for Democrats must include the revitalization of the Democratic Party at the local level, a task complicated by the image of a national party that cares less about rural and small-town voters. Schmuhl says one priority is simply to be visible. “You’ve got to start to communicate with people, to offer them a choice,” he said, “and so I think showing up is first and foremost.”

He cited his experiences working for Buttigieg and Donnelly. “They both had a central focus in their approach to politics, which is, you go everywhere,” he said. “If you’re invited to something, you try to show up and talk to anybody. You take the tough questions. You just show up here.”

Schmuhl sees two possible avenues for Democrats to start to make gains, although neither presents an easy path for success. The first is the possibility that Republicans will swing so far to the right, and so deeply into Donald Trump’s conspiracy politics, that there will be a voter backlash.

That hasn’t yet happened in Indiana or, for that matter, in other red states, where GOP legislatures have pushed the envelope with new laws on voting rights, education, abortion and other cultural issues. Schmuhl holds out hope that things could yet turn. “Republican domination is a double-edged sword,” he said. “You can go so far and so you kind of tip over.”

He pointed out that in Indiana this year, about two dozen incumbent Republican legislators, including some committee chairs, face such primary challenges, many from candidates with a Trumpian agenda. “I think that every day on their side, it’s really kind of divisions between the far-right kind of MAGA crowd and the establishment Republicans.”

Schmuhl also thinks that Democrats can attract more voters with a bold economic platform, although the party has had limited success trying to win back some of the White voters it has lost in the past two decades. In these areas, the Democrats’ economic message has not been able to trump cultural issues, but Schmuhl plans to keep fighting on that front.

Schmuhl said one big challenge is combating disinformation and misinformation, particularly that coming from conservative media outlets, including Fox News. He has been given money from the Democratic National Committee to fund a war room position “for me to look at innovative ways to fight misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news, all of that,” he said.

Schmuhl hopes to see progress eventually but knows it will take time. “I’m not naive that it’s going to change things instantly,” he said of the work he has started. This year, the political winds are blowing against the Democrats, even in places that are less red than Indiana. Next year, Indiana will have local elections, and he expects Democrats to perform better in those contests.

That will set up 2024, when Indiana will have an open governor’s race, a Senate race featuring Sen. Mike Braun (R), who defeated Donnelly in 2018, and, of course, the presidential race, all of which will draw more attention and bring more voters to the polls. “If we’ve done some of these foundational pieces here,” Schmuhl said, “I hope that is when you start to see a lot of progress.”

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