It was only a little over 12 years ago that the state of Indiana was considered a swing state. Barack Obama’s organizational focus on grassroots efforts had started to pay off and the Hoosier State, despite voting for George W. Bush by over 20 points just four years earlier, was up for grabs for Democrats. In the end, Obama carried Indiana by about 1%. He did so by running up the margins in rural counties (even picking up a few), while maintaining impressive leads in traditionally blue counties.
Obama subsequently lost the state to Mitt Romney by 10 points in 2012. Despite picking up a Senate seat and a close gubernatorial race that year, Democrats have not won a single statewide race since then. In 2016 and 2018, Democrats ran what were expected to be competitive races for the U.S. Senate, only for Republicans to trounce Democrats by sizable margins in both races.
In just a short amount of time, Indiana changed from a state that was open to electing Democrats in statewide races to a safe Republican stronghold.
So what’s changed since 2012?
As an Indiana resident, I’ve not seen much change here in terms of values. People still value community, free thinking, and small businesses. In fact, a number of Trump supporters support Social Security, belong to labor unions, and despise the ever-growing threat of wealth inequality.
What has made a difference, though, has been a focus in the Republican Party away from kitchen-table issues and towards “cultural” issues. Republican politicians in the Hoosier State realize that when the conversation is focused on issues such as healthcare and Social Security they tend to lose, even in Indiana. As such, there has been a significant shift in the rhetoric of Republican politicians conflating conservative and family values with that of far-right Republican politics. Instead of having to justify positions that hurt constituents, Republicans shift the conversation toward positioning themselves in a cultural battle against the “anti-American Left,” “socialism,” people who “want to take your guns and kill your babies.” In doing so, they villainize Democrats and end up defining the narrative.
This isn’t to say that these tactics have never existed, but within the span of several years, they have polarized and divided Indiana on cultural lines. This kind of rhetoric, through sheer force, has dominated our state’s politics. Regardless of whether Hoosiers want to see the government take an active role in helping people’s lives, Republicans win races by forcefully dominating the conversation and by appealing to rural Hoosiers by pitting us as the “other.”
In doing so, it becomes a tough situation for Democrats. It puts us in the midst of an imaginary culture war of “the coastal elites vs. the rural Midwest” or “urban vs. rural.” It paints a picture of us as being incompatible with cultural conservatism, patriotism, and rural Midwest values.
This could not be farther from the truth. The fact of the matter is that Democrats are not unified through a sense of hatred for America, nor are we defined by a sense of distrust in rural Americans or disgust for the Christian faith. We, as Democrats, wave the American flag proudly. Many of us are farmers, and many of us practice all different kinds of faiths, including Christianity.
Democrats can win back Indiana, and other states like it, by pushing the conversation toward issues voters care about. People all across this country love their Social Security, public schools, labor unions, and small businesses. After all, these are the very characteristics that help define our communities. When Democrats run for statewide and local offices in states like Indiana, this is what they need to focus on.
When Republicans call us “socialists,” we have a duty to bring the conversation back down to earth. We cannot allow ourselves to be defined through the world of Republican operatives. Nothing will ever be gained by engaging in these kinds of conversations in any way. We have to focus on the real issues that people in our communities face on an everyday basis. Because at the end of the day, that’s where we win.
Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020 by rejecting Donald Trump’s divisive, cartoonish, red-meat style of politics and by embracing a more productive approach that focuses on issue-based discussions to improve the lives of everyday Americans. This is a winning message for Democrats all across the country.
We can flip Indiana (and many other red states) through hard work, perseverance, and grassroots organizing as well as the right focus on kitchen-table issues. In doing so, our communities (and our country) will be much better off.
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