2016 Primary Illustrates Rapidly Changing State, National Political Landscape


60498552To describe the 2016 primary elections in Indiana as anything less than dramatic and jarring seems an understatement. Two years ago, record low turnout tipped the balance to ideological sub-groups of motivated voters. This year, unprecedented turnout in both parties was the environment.

In the same election where Hoosier voters overwhelmingly chose “anti-establishment” leaders in Donald Trump (R) and Bernie Sanders (D) in their respective party primaries for president, Hoosier Republicans preferred by a 2-1 margin Todd Young over the conservative, Freedom Caucus poster-boy Marlin Stutzman. This seeming contradiction carried down into state legislative races.

A large majority of Hoosiers detest the federal government, distrust both political parties, and want someone or something to lash out at. With Republicans in charge of both houses of the General Assembly by strong quorum-proof majorities, if you’re looking for some political payback in Indiana, the Republicans are the ones calling the shots.

In the 2016 primary elections, only one Democrat incumbent legislator faced a primary election challenger. However, 14 Republican legislators faced primary election challengers. The 2016 primary elections – just like in 2014 – were about the Republicans.

Two years ago, candidates at the primary election faced a likewise frustrated and ideologically-driven electorate feeding tough challenges from the right. In 2014, the very low turnout election resulted in highly-energized subgroups of voters – those angry and motivated to vote against someone – to turnout to vote. This year, huge volumes of new GOP primary voters, motivated by the presidential race and “anti-establishment” anger, washed over races like tsunamis of discontent.

In state legislative races, incumbents and new candidates alike who distinguished themselves in both aggressive personal contact with voters, organized and efficient campaign operations and who positioned themselves solidly to the right or left with their party’s bases were generally successful. There were exceptions, but this continues to be the formula to win in primary elections.

A fundamental, foundational shift appears to be underway in the Hoosier electorate. This is not unique to Indiana, but the state does appear to continue to be on the cutting-edge of political conflict and change. A relatively “conservative” state in terms of culture and political attitudes, Indiana has not been a sleeper state in terms of policy and political conflict.

Back-to-back legislative battles over highly-charged social issues of abortion, LGBT civil rights protections, RFRA, and gay marriage aren’t the only policy battlegrounds. Infrastructure, tax cuts, education reforms, right to work, and more have been a focus.

There hasn’t been much “sleepy Indiana” to be found in policy debates or political activities in the state for some time. The ingredients of conflict in this political soup are a product of significant and often rapid changes in our culture, society, economy and workplaces. Our political system is where these competing priorities and often difficult personal and societal transformations are debated and competed over at the ballot box.

Indiana Business for Responsive Government (IBRG), the non-partisan political action program of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, was heavily engaged in the primary election cycle to help elect pro-jobs, pro-free enterprise candidates to the Indiana General Assembly. Unlike most other PAC programs, IBRG is not in the business of “picking the winners,” but being there to defend incumbents with strong voting records and to challenge those who do not.

IBRG continued its record of election successes with 18 of 22 endorsed primary election candidates winning.

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