Buttigieg Short Circuits The GOP Attack Machine

Democrat candidate for president Pete Buttigieg at his office in South Bend.
Former Democrat candidate for president Pete Buttigieg in his old mayor's office in South Bend.

Photo by Tony Valainis

When former Vice President Joe Biden fell ill with laryngitis last August, he left Illinois Democrats without a headline speaker for their annual Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association brunch. His last-minute replacement: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an up-and-comer at the time, but a figure then nowhere near Biden’s star power.

In his speech, Buttigieg called President Trump a “disgraced game show host” and branded Vice President Mike Pence “a social extremist, the likes of which our country has not known in national politics.” In retrospect, it’s not hard to see how Buttigieg was refining his messaging for what would later become his stump speech on the presidential campaign trail.

“We have found a way to get to our future,” Buttigieg told those gathered. “Not through nostalgia, not through resentment. I didn’t go around saying we were going to bring back Studebaker jobs or Make South Bend Great Again. Obviously it wasn’t just me. You did not see me or anyone else in our city going around beating our chests, saying things like ‘I alone can fix it.’ Don’t trust anybody who says ‘I alone can fix it.’ Bullshit.”

For many in the room, it was the first time Buttigieg surfaced on their radar. But for Indiana Republicans back home, it was the first time Buttigieg warranted a brushback pitch. “Rarely-in-South Bend Mayor Buttigieg left Hoosier Hospitality at home,” Indiana GOP Chairman Kyle Hupfer wrote in an email to supporters shortly after the appearance, adding that Buttigieg was “unhinged.”

Until last week, that was oddly one of the last times we heard from the Indiana GOP about Buttigieg. (Meanwhile, though, their federal counterparts at the Republican National Committee issued a statement saying that Buttigieg was the mayor of the “most dangerous city in Indiana” and noted that South Bend “residents would rather him fix the town’s countless potholes than waste time running for president.”) But state party allowed Buttigieg to rise virtually unchecked—a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by high level Hoosier Republicans I’ve spoken with in recent days. During his breakout CNN Town Hall in March, for example, there was no rapid response operation in place to refute Buttigieg. Granted, it was relatively early in his rise from one-percenter to top-tier candidate. It’s enough to fuel speculation—which is incorrect, top Republicans tell me—that Buttigieg might parachute out of the 2020 race to challenge Gov. Eric Holcomb in the 2020 gubernatorial race. (Buttigieg would look somewhat opportunistic to drop out of the presidential race four days after the Iowa caucuses to make the February 7 deadline to run for governor. In response, Buttigeig’s campaign said the candidate was “running for president.”

Finally, last week, ahead of Buttigieg’s official announcement, the state GOP’s press shop creaked into life, churning out statements, opposition research, and tweets attacking Buttigieg. “The Truth About Pete Buttigieg: He Can Only Win in a Blue City in a Red State” read one. “Pete Buttigieg’s South Bend: ‘One of the Most Dangerous Cities’ in America,” read another, repeating the RNC charge.

“It’s pretty common for a state party to actively weigh in when a candidate for president hails from their backyard,” Pete Seat, the Indiana GOP’s executive director of strategic communications and talent, told me last week.

During Buttigieg’s announcement on Sunday, state GOP chairman Hupfer issued a kind of coup de grâce, Mad Libs-style statement arguing that “no amount of mudslinging, unhinged political rhetoric or time rubbing elbows with the coastal liberal elite will hide the facts of his failed tenure as mayor of South Bend. Poverty and eviction rates are high and crime is plaguing the city.”

It’s revealing to juxtapose Hupfer’s statement with how other Hoosier Republicans have described Buttigieg recently. The Republican response to Buttigieg has been all over the map and often contradict each other. “I think it shows that they are not disciplined in their messaging,” Indiana Democratic Party Chariman John Zody told me this week. “He’s taken them by surprise. A lot of people around the country are seeing him rise, and I think it’s for good reason. And I think Republicans are sort of caught flat-footed, not knowing exactly how to respond to him.”

Is South Bend doing well economically or is it a kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape? Let’s look at what Gov. Eric Holcomb said about the economic health of South Bend in February, when he visited the city. Citing the state’s healthy economy, he said South Bend along with Elkhart and Marshall County were “the engine of growth.”

Is he a progressive mayor whose moderate and cerebral approach has appeal to red-state voters and deserves “respect,” as conservative Republican talker Hugh Hewitt suggested recently on NBC’s Meet the Press (“I’ve been following him very closely,” he said. “He worries me from a Republican standpoint.”)? Or is he “unhinged,” as the Indiana GOP said in several recent press statements?

Is he a decent, likable person who happens to have Obama-like progressive ideals, as Rep. Jim Banks, the 3rd District Republican Congressman from Columbia City who bonded with Buttigeg over their shared deployment in Afghanistan, tweeted last Sunday? “If you liked Barack Obama, you’re going to love @PeteButtigieg,” Banks tweeted Sunday. If that was intended as a backhanded compliment, it was an odd one: elevating the mayor to an echelon alongside a popular two-term Democratic president who left office in January 2017 with a 57 percent approval rating. To no one’s surprise, several Indiana Democrats responded to the tweet with glee.

Is he an absentee mayor, who doesn’t care about South Bend? Or is he, as Pence said in 2015, “a dedicated public servant and a patriot?” These are all questions Republicans will have to answer in a cogent way if they want to stop Buttigieg’s surge. Here’s what Michael Steel, former political hand to Jeb Bush and Speaker Boehner told Chuck Todd this week on Meet the Press Daily: “Pete Buttigieg should scare the Trump Administration, should scare the Trump campaign, because he is from the heartland, because he is young, because he is a veteran, because he’s interesting.”

For now, Hoosier GOPers have yet to figure out how to hit Buttigieg in a way that sticks, something that could represent a looming problem for the party. Now, even President Trump is recognizing that Buttigieg is a serious contender. “It could be the mayor from Indiana. I think I’d like running against him, too,” Trump told Sirius XM host David Webb. “But it will be very interesting to see it unfold.”