Indiana Primary 2014: Intra-Party Turmoil and Bassler’s Big Win Over Longtime State Senator

Indiana Business for Responsive Government (IBRG), the non-partisan political action program of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, fought through one of the most challenging primary election cycles in its history with 12 of 14 IBRG-endorsed candidates winning their respective primary elections (including Eric Bassler’s big victory over 20-year incumbent State Sen. John Waterman).

Today, Hoosier voters believe their state government is on the “right track” by margins probably not seen in a generation of polling in the state, while holding nearly mirror opposite views of the federal government. Hoosiers have confidence in where our growing economy is headed and strongly support a variety of reforms that are helping Indiana lead the nation in economic growth.

However, large blocks of Hoosiers also 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 2014 primary elections, no Democrat incumbent legislator faced a primary election challenger. There were only two Democratic primaries in the state for “open” (i.e. no incumbent running) legislative seats, both in Lake County. The 2014 primary elections were about the Republicans. It’s important to note that the 2012 primary elections were the first held after redistricting. Twenty-two districts in 2012 did not have an incumbent running, compared to only eight this primary election. If you look at the House, the difference is even more stark –  20 open seats in 2012 and only three in 2014. So, the 2014 primaries had a lot more to do with incumbents.

In 2012, the labor unions were still hopping-mad over right-to-work and running a number of candidates against GOP incumbents and open seat races. They all failed. While the ISTA teachers union and “Lunch Pail Republicans” were back this year, a new and formidable primary challenge came from social and religious conservative candidates and interest groups, working in concert with some Tea Party networks. Their targets — select Republican primary elections.

Highly-motivated by hot-button social and religious issues such as the gay marriage amendment HJR-3, several otherwise conservative Republican legislators found themselves facing tough challenges from the right. In low-turnout elections, highly-energized subgroups of voters – those angry and motivated to vote against someone – can and do turnout to vote and win races.

It’s impossible to have much of a discussion of 2014 Indiana state politics without considering the impact of the hyper-divisive fight over the gay marriage amendment HJR-3. Setting aside the policy debate, clearly it has motivated, energized and radicalized large segments of the population on both sides of the issue. For many, it is a hyper-issue that overrules all others.

In this year’s primary elections, three Republican state representatives who voted against the gay marriage amendment found themselves challenged by significantly more socially conservative primary election challengers. Two of these three were defeated on May 6 and the third won with less than 50% as his two primary election challengers split 50.5% of the protest vote.

However, where issues other than religious and social ones took front and center, the results were very different. Where issues such as jobs, tax cuts, economic growth, right-to-work, education reform, free enterprise, regulatory relief and other economic and reform issues were the focus, incumbents (and non-incumbents) performed very well. In fact, they all won when IBRG was involved!

IBRG success included the highly‐targeted race that defeated a 20‐year Senate Republican incumbent (John Waterman in Senate District 39) strongly backed by the ISTA teachers union, other labor unions and trial lawyers. It included defending key legislators with strong pro‐jobs, pro‐economy records. This report will be updated as additional election results become available and published at
www.ibrg.biz.

IBRG Endorsed Candidates

Incumbents
House 22 Rebecca Kubacki – Loss
House 25 Don Lehe – Win
House 32 P. Eric Turner – Win
House 39 Jerry Torr – Win
House 59 Milo Smith – Win
House 83 Kathy Heuer – Loss
House 84 Bob Morris – Win
House 85 Casey Cox – Win
House 91 Robert Behning – Win
Senate 31 James Merritt, Jr. – Win

Challengers and Others
Senate 39 Eric Bassler – Win
Senate 47 Erin Houchin – Win

Open Seats
House 63 Mike Braun – Win
Senate 43 Chip Perfect – Win

The Personal Side of Politics

My seven year-old daughter recently got excited about the memory of walking in a parade in last year’s campaigns. We were there on a weekend afternoon with a candidate backed by the Indiana Chamber’s non-partisan political action program.

“Daddy, we talked to the governor, the senator and played with their dog …” I remember all the complaining about how her feet hurt and carrying her half the parade route, but I smiled that she remembered a “political” experience warmly.

It’s a darn shame so few in our society ever really get to have a positive and personal relationship with the people who run for office and represent them. It’s hard to hate someone who you’ve looked in the eye, made a personal contact with and shared something with – even just a pleasant greeting.

The airwaves are filled with vitriolic rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and anger on both sides. The incentives in politics are all out of whack, as activists and media are driven to conflict and division. At times it seems the only time politicians are portrayed as personal or human is when they screw up.

I didn’t come from a political family. However, I still remember being not much older than my daughter one fall morning when my congressman knelt down to shake my hand and say a kind word. I respected that man for a decade to follow, even when I worked tirelessly to defeat him later as a young adult in the political business.

It’s a shame more of our children and adults don’t get the chance or care to make a personal connection with political leaders.

The Crazy Things Candidates Say

Over the years, we’ve met, interviewed and evaluated hundreds of candidates for the Indiana Chamber’s non-partisan political action program, Indiana Business for Responsive Government (IBRG). The vast majority are thoughtful people, but sometimes they say the most outrageous things.

  • “My wife is really mad that I’m running. She’s moved out and says she’ll move back when I lose.” Is this campaign a win-win or a lose-lose scenario for you?
  • “No, I’ve never met anyone there or asked for their campaign support.” We knew for a fact he had just left their office an hour before.
  • “There was this thing where I got accused by this teenage girl a couple years ago, but no one will know about it.” OK, I think we’ve heard enough about your campaign.
  • “We need to raise taxes on corporations and ban coal in this state!” Do you know what a chamber of commerce is?
  • <Intense stare>“I have this power. I can look at people and know what they are thinking.” Sorry, I didn’t really mean what I just thought.
  • “A friend of mine has photos of my opponent in bed with a man who isn’t her husband.” That could make for an interesting direct mailing.
  • “I worked for the CIA, but I don’t want to tell anyone.” So did I, but let’s keep it to ourselves.
  • “I love to go to Vegas a couple of times a year, not to gamble but for the girls. You’ll have to come with me sometime.” My wife will want to talk to your wife first.
  • “Yes, I lost the last three campaigns, but you’re not going to hold that against me are you?” No, I’m sure you’ve gotten the losing out of your system.
  • “I heard your interviews are really intense, but you’re not the mean <beep> I thought you were.” I’ll try harder to live up to my reputation.

Way Too Early for 2016 Hype, But…

It’s way too early for this, but I can’t help myself. Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie appear to be favorites as nominees for the 2016 election, and NBC News reports on a recent poll showing Clinton had the edge thus far. She also appears to benefit from more cohesive support from her party than Christie, as Tea Partiers don’t seem to be enthusiastic about the Springsteen-loving East Coaster.

Christie vs. Clinton

Christie’s challenges extend beyond his own party: The poll finds Clinton getting the support of 44 percent of all adults in a hypothetical match up against the New Jersey governor, who gets 34 percent. The rest of respondents either preferred another candidate, said they would not vote, or were undecided.

And while Election Day 2016 is still more than 1,000 days away, the survey shows Clinton benefiting from the same demographic trends that helped propel President Barack Obama to win the election in 2008 and re-election in 2012.

Clinton leads Christie among African Americans (83 percent to 4 percent), respondents ages 18 to 29 (45 percent to 31 percent) and Latinos (44 percent to 33 percent).

Clinton also holds the advantage with residents from the Northeast (52 percent to 35 percent), West (43 percent to 30 percent), the South (43 percent to 35 percent) and Midwest (41 percent to 37 percent). And she has a narrow edge among independents (39 percent to 35 percent).

Christie, meanwhile, leads among whites (41 percent to 37 percent), seniors (44 percent to 41 percent) and respondents with an annual income of $75,000 or more (46 percent to 34 percent).

Is Christie the New “Boss” in New Jersey?

Ever since college, I've been known by my friends and family as a Bruce Springsteen enthusiast. In fact, I was in attendance when he performed the first concert in Conseco (now Bankers Life) Fieldhouse. (I actually sat behind Pacers Rik Smits and then-rookie Jeff Foster, who were both kind enough to stay seated throughout the show.) So imagine my surprise when I found this article in The Daily Caller asserting that Gov. Chris Christie is technically more popular than "The Boss" in his home state of New Jersey.

However, do note that the poll was conducted by a conservative organization, so I'm betting there was push-polling involved. Frankly, I'm a little inclined to call "bull-feathers" on this, but it makes for interesting blog fodder. But if this sentiment is accurate and spreads nationally, it could bode well for Christie in 2016.

Chris Christie is apparently more popular in the Garden State than his musical idol Bruce Springsteen.

A Conservative Intel poll of 778 likely voters shows 56 percent of New Jerseyans have a favorable impression of their Republican governor, while just 34 percent have an unfavorable view of him. Ten percent said they were not sure how they feel.

Christie bests Bruce Springsteen, a New Jersey icon, by eight points. “The Boss” registers a 48 percent favorability rating in the poll. In contrast to Christie, however, only 22 percent say they have a distinctly unfavorable impression of the “Born to Run” singer. A whopping 29 percent said they were unsure of how they feel about Springsteen.

The poll was conducted over Oct. 13 – 14 and has a 3.5 percent margin of error.

Christie is an unabashed fanatic of Springsteen’s music, claiming to have attended over 130 Springsteen concerts. Christie even admitted that he wept after Springsteen hugged him last November.

The Conservative Intel survey also shows that Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker is likely to win Wednesday’s special Senate election in New Jersey to replace Frank Lautenberg, who passed away in June. According to the poll, Booker holds an 11-percentage point lead over his Republican challenger, Steve Lonegan, 52 percent to 41 percent.

The Political Brain: Can Brain Scans Predict Your Affiliations?

Found this interesting article on Huffington Post about how brain scans can predict political affiliation. This does make sense; my experience is that after interacting with someone only for a brief period of time, I can accurately guess which way they lean. Not always, of course — and some turn out to be centrists or libertarians, who wouldn't necessarily fit into the left/right model. But it's an intriguing scientific approach to the madness.

Comparing the Democrat and Republican participants turned up differences in two brain regions: the right amygdala and the left posterior insula. Republicans showed more activity than Democrats in the right amygdala when making a risky decision. This brain region is important for processing fear, risk and reward.

Meanwhile, Democrats showed more activity in the left posterior insula, a portion of the brain responsible for processing emotions, particularly visceral emotional cues from the body. The particular region of the insula that showed the heightened activity has also been linked with "theory of mind," or the ability to understand what others might be thinking.

While their brain activity differed, the two groups' behaviors were identical, the study found.

Schreiber and his colleagues can't say whether the functional brain differences nudge people toward a particular ideology or not. The brain changes based on how it is used, so it is possible that acting in a partisan way prompts the differences.

The functional differences did mesh well with political beliefs, however. The researchers were able to predict a person's political party by looking at their brain function 82.9 percent of the time. In comparison, knowing the structure of these regions predicts party correctly 71 percent of the time, and knowing someone's parents' political affiliation can tell you theirs 69.5 percent of the time, the researchers wrote.

IBRG: Thoughtful Discourse Unfortunately Taking Backseat to Fury and Fear

A couple of months ago I had the pleasure to attend the Indiana Chamber’s statewide summit on the Indiana Vision 2025 plan. A very diverse group of a couple hundred leaders from business, community, academic and research had a very engaging and cooperative discussion. There was real energy and excitement about coming together to do big things.

This came in stunning contrast for this writer, fresh off another election cycle, a few more bruises, stories, wins and losses. Elections are seldom about big ideas, cooperation or, certainly not, bipartisanship. Election campaigns are about political combat, contrast, division, and lining up in camps. It has always been this way, varying only by tone and degrees.

This all came to mind in reviewing a recent speech by former Senator Richard Lugar at Duke University on partisanship and our political climate. An excerpt:

Perhaps the most potent force driving partisanship is the rise of a massive industry that makes money off of political discord. This industry encompasses cable news networks, talk radio shows, partisan think tanks, direct mail fundraisers, innumerable websites and blogs, social media, and gadfly candidates and commentators. Many of these entities have a deep economic stake in perpetuating political conflict. They are successfully marketing and monetizing partisan outrage. In some cases, these partisan practitioners are true believers whose economic interests coincide with their political views. But in other cases, they are just executing a business model predicated on appealing to the prejudices and fears of their adherents . . . The cumulative result is that extremism has a much greater chance of being rewarded electorally than it did even a decade ago, and good governance has suffered.

As a practitioner in the political industry, I think this is a fair criticism. However, Sen. Lugar’s assertion that “extremism has a much greater chance of being rewarded…” is a particularly important one.

Fury and fear have become the fuel of our political discord. The competition for attention in a rapid-fire, all-encompassing communication world creates a need to be creatively outrageous, loud, brief and divisive to get attention and to motivate people to act.

Policy intricacies, open and deep discussions around finding a broad vision, encouraging cooperation are, well, boring in the new and old media worlds alike. Conflict, name-calling, grenade throwing and “gotcha” politics are more entertaining and, ultimately, entertainment gets attention.

With the lines blurred and almost gone now between election campaigns and the governing/public policy making process – the incentives have escalated the trend to rhetorical excess, criticism and divisiveness in our political discourse. To steal Adam Smith’s imagery, the invisible hand of the political market provides a powerful incentive to breed fear, fury and factions in our system.

Jeff Brantley is the Indiana Chamber's VP of political affairs and leads Indiana Business for Responsive Government (IBRG). Follow him on Twitter at @jbrantleyIBRG.

Parties Fight for U.S. Senate Majority

Republicans are vying hard to capture 51 seats in the U.S. Senate. Likely holding onto their House majority, a Senate victory would prove incredibly useful for them — even moreso if Mitt Romney were to win the Presidency, in what remains a very tight contest. Indiana is now a focal point as Richard Mourdock and Joe Donnelly are also in a remarkably close race. Brandon J. Gaylord of the Daily Caller opines on the chances of both parties:

Until “legitimate rape” became part of the political lexicon, the Republican path to a Senate majority was straightforward. Take the four Democratic seats in Nebraska, North Dakota, Missouri, and Montana, while accepting a loss in Maine, for a net of +3 Senate seats. This would create an even 50/50 split in the Senate. From that baseline the GOP would have needed to hold Scott Brown’s seat and win just one of the toss-ups in Wisconsin or Virginia. Other, less favorable options were open in Florida and Ohio.

In the past month, much has changed on the Senate landscape, but I’m still projecting the GOP will pick up three seats this November. Missouri is no longer a GOP lock. In fact, it barely qualifies as a toss-up. However, Republicans have expanded the map to compensate for the loss of one of their most favorable pick-up opportunities. In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson survived his primary and is a consistent favorite over the Democrat, Tammy Baldwin. Josh Mandel in Ohio and Linda McMahon in Connecticut have drawn even with their Democratic opponents in recent polling. The races in Virginia and Massachusetts have hardly budged and remain true toss-ups.

Democrats have also received encouraging news. Besides a much better chance to keep Missouri, Bob Nelson is maintaining his lead in Florida, although his numbers are still very shaky for an incumbent. Democrats are also hopeful that a new round of polling will validate favorable surveys taken over the summer in Indiana and North Dakota. Despite Republicans being expected to win in North Dakota and Nebraska, Democrats believe they have superior candidates and fundraising. In Nevada, Shelley Berkley’s ethics problems have not yet hurt her campaign. She consistently trails her Republican opponent, incumbent Dean Heller, by less than five points.

There’s Only So Much (Political Advertising) a Person Can Take

Who doesn’t enjoy a good campaign commercial? With politicians lambasting their opponents, blaming them for the recession, mortgage failure, tax crisis, Midwest drought and McDonald’s taking away the McRib sandwich (okay, those last two are a bit facetious – obviously no one controls the weather), what’s not to love?

And no doubt you’re already saturated with political campaigns. “How can this be?,” you proclaim. “It’s only August!”

You are not wrong in your exasperation. The sheer number of television campaign advertisements shown so far this year is shocking (with three months to go before the election, even) and the amount of money spent by candidates and Super PACs is astounding.

Think you’ve had enough? Be glad you don’t live in Ohio. Or Florida. Or North Carolina. The money spent on the presidential election alone in this cycle has been $37.2 million in Ohio on TV ads; $36.3 million in Florida; and $20.4 million in North Carolina.

In fact, across nine “battleground” states (the three listed, along with Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire), the presidential campaigns and Super PACs have spent $174 million on television spots alone. And that amount was just for nine states through the beginning of July.

Let me put that into perspective: According to ESPN, in 2012 the average cost for a 30-second television ad during the Super Bowl was $3.5 million. That $174 million spent so far on presidential advertisements in nine states equals about 50 Super Bowl commercials. (Unfortunately, politicians don’t include the Budweiser Clydesdales or barking dogs dressed as "Star Wars" characters in their ads.)

It’s not just which states you are in, but also the networks you watch. For instance, if you are a regular Fox News viewer, chances are you’ve seen a number of the 479,055 advertisements that have aired on the network thus far. CNN is next with 191,027 campaign ads and another news network, MSNBC, aired 75,207, according to NCC Media.

You can’t really avoid it by changing the channel, either. ESPN, TNT, USA, Lifetime, HGTV, and the Weather Channel, to name a few, top the list of number of ads aired this election cycle. Even Food Network viewers can’t escape the barrage (33,118 ads so far interspersed between Paula Deen and Bobby Flay).

It’s safe to say that as the election draws closer, we will see even more of these ads. But, are they effective? Americans that are planning to vote most likely have decided which candidate they will support – but there are always individuals that can be wooed at the last minute.

One thing is for sure, however: The broadcast television industry must really love election time.

Social Media and Politics: Nebraska Awkwardness Edition

PR Daily has this troubling Twitter anecdote from the Nebraska Senate Primary. The details follow, but one candidate is basically accused of trying to "follow" his opponent’s daughter on Twitter. Sounds creepy at first, but in his defense, he delegates Twitter management to an aide. But it makes for an interesting exchange:

Talk about an awkward debate moment.

During a debate in Nebraska last week, one Republican Senate candidate, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, accused his opponent, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, of being “creepy” for following his 14-year-old daughter on Twitter.

Bruning unleashed this salvo:

“Let me ask you this, Don. This Sunday, my daughter walks in, and says, ‘Don Stenberg’s trying to follow me on Twitter.’ My daughter’s 14-years-old. Now you tell me: I’d like to know, why does a 62-year-old man want to follow a 14-year-old girl on Twitter? I’d really like to know. She said, ‘Dad, that’s kind of creepy.’"

In return, Mr. Stenberg said the following:

“Quite honestly, I don’t do my own Twitter. Dan Parsons does it for me. We’ve got thousands and thousands of folks, and as soon as we get done here, I’ll call Dan and make sure that’s taken off. I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

That’s not a bad verbal response, but note his body language. His vocal delivery is much less sure than it was in his previous answer, and his post-answer body language reveals obvious anger. It’s hard to tell whether his ire is directed at his opponent or at his aide who requested to follow Bruning’s daughter; either way, his annoyance is obvious.

He lost control of the moment—and as a result, he lost the exchange

In these situations, maintaining control is critical. Stenberg’s approach of running toward the charge (“I don’t think it’s appropriate”) was a good one. But he should have delivered that line (or my suggested lines below) with full confidence:

“Jon, I agree with you. Children should not be fodder in political campaigns, and this is the first I’m hearing that one of my campaign aides tried to follow your daughter on Twitter. As soon as this debate ends, I’m going to have a conversation with my staff and make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”

Once he successfully finished running toward the charge, he could have taken the opportunity to counter-attack:

“But you know, Jon, I’m disappointed in you. Instead of speaking to me privately about this, one father to another, you opted to use this situation as an opportunity to score cheap political points. That’s exactly the kind of political stunt voters are sick of, and as far as I’m concerned, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”