Can Young Activists Give Indiana Dems Better Than A Puncher’s Chance?

Young Indiana Democrats

Illustration by Curt Melo

On the night Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Brandon Evans felt like he’d been “punched in the stomach.” Up to that point in his life, the community engagement manager at IndyGo had only dabbled in political activism. But Trump’s victory touched off something deep inside.

A couple weeks later, he reached out to Peter Hanscom, the campaign manager for Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly at the time. Commiserating over coffee, Hanscom suggested that Evans check out the Indiana Young Democrats. Evans followed his advice.

In the last few years, Evans and a collective of similarly energized young Democrats have transformed IYD from a small group into a well-organized activist force. Since 2017, IYD has grown from 50 members in eight counties to 300 members in 20 counties. It scored its biggest victory to date last year, when it won the bid to bring the Young Democrats of America biannual convention to Indy. The gathering arrives this month, bringing nearly 1,000 young Democrats from across the country to a state currently dominated by Republicans.

Winning a convention is one thing. Elections, quite another. Currently, the GOP holds all statewide offices in Indiana, as well as supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. “We are in a little bit of a hole,” Evans concedes. “But we’re climbing out of it.”

Perhaps. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, a former Indiana Young Democrat, is blazing a bright trail nationally. But it remains to be seen whether his success will give Indiana Democrats a boost. Although they fared poorly in last year’s midterms, there were harbingers of hope. J.D. Ford, from a district that encompasses parts of Marion, Boone, and Hamilton counties, unseated staunchly conservative Republican Mike Delph to become Indiana’s first openly gay person in the General Assembly. And Lake County’s Chris Chyung became Indiana’s first Asian-American lawmaker at the age of 25.

Those were minor victories, of course, and what they portend for the future of Indiana politics depends on whom you ask. At the moment, Republicans aren’t exactly shaking in their shoes. But the Indiana Young Democrats are playing a long game—one where the goal, according to Evans, is generational change. “I truly believe our state is heading in the wrong direction,” he says. “To effect the kind of change that I want to see will take electing more Democrats. And I think the best and most hardworking Democrats we have currently are young ones.”

In early 2015, the Marion County chapter of the IYD was, essentially, dead. But when then-governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in March of that year—arguably making religious beliefs a justification for discrimination against LGBT people—he shocked the moribund organization back to life. Josh Peters, now deputy treasurer of Marion County, remembers getting an email from a young Indiana House intern named Aaron Ketzenberger who wanted to restart the group. Peters and Ketzenberger set up shop at an anti-RFRA rally to recruit members, and held their first meeting later that month.

If RFRA provided a spark for IYD, Donald Trump’s election set off a prairie fire. After Evans joined the group in late 2016, his recruiting efforts helped make the Marion County chapter of IYD the largest in the state—and the envy of many groups in larger, bluer cities. “When I tell people in Chicago or Denver that we have 60 to 80 people at every meeting, their eyes get big,” he says.

Heather K. Sager, a transplant from Queens, New York, brought a new level of professional polish to IYD’s strategic communication efforts. As IYD’s executive director, she helped put together the bid for the Young Democrats of America convention. Founded in 1932, the national group hadn’t visited Indiana in 25 years. “Our pitch was, If you don’t like what’s happening on a national level, then bring this huge gathering of young Democrats to Mike Pence’s home state right before the 2020 election.” The strategy worked. Out of 130 YDA committee members, more than 100 voted to hold the convention in Indy.

[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Elise Shrock/Indiana Young Democrats”]As young people, we’ve seen a lot of the same faces running for some of our top seats. I don’t know if that’s a winning recipe moving forward.”[/pullquote]

Sager views the convention as another milestone in IYD’s evolution from a scrappy youth activist group to a well-oiled political apparatus that develops young Democratic candidates and supports their campaigns. “We are looking at this as, among other things, an infrastructure-building exercise,” she says.

“Infrastructure” is a word one hears frequently when talking to IYD members. The current leadership is keenly interested in the group’s long-term viability. To that end, they’ve added an executive committee and appointed or helped elect leadership officers around the state. “We want to make sure it doesn’t fall apart when good talent ages out of it,” Evans says. The newly robust IYD is a key source of support for a burgeoning crop of young Democratic candidates in Indiana. In 2018, 32 Democrats under the age of 35 ran statewide. More than half of those were dues-paying IYD members, including current IYD president Derek Camp.

Camp, 29, was a first-time candidate running against incumbent (and current Indianapolis mayoral candidate) Jim Merritt in District 31. The area includes parts of Lawrence, Fishers, Noblesville, and Indianapolis, and Camp blames its zigzagging boundaries on Republican gerrymandering. Merritt has held the seat since 1990—the year after Camp was born. Historically, Democrats viewed that seat as unwinnable. But Camp looked at the region’s evolving demographics and saw an opportunity. “There have been a lot of younger people and families coming into the district,” he says, “and I didn’t feel we were being represented.”

Camp ended up losing by a narrow margin in 2018: 30,221 to 28,612. But he believes he laid the groundwork for future success in the district by putting up a strong fight—something no other Democrat had done for decades. “We’re putting in a lot of work that has been neglected for years,” he says.

“Neglected for years.” While that sounds like an indictment of the old Democratic guard in Indiana, IYD members are, generally speaking, not eager to blame their elder counterparts publicly for the recent failures of the Indiana Democratic party. But talk to enough young Democrats, and the tension between the old guard and the new rises to the surface.

Peters, currently running for county treasurer, is hoping to become the first openly gay county commissioner in Indiana history. He points to J.D. Ford’s victory as proof that the path to electoral victory is changing for Indiana Democrats. “It showed that young progressives can win in Indiana,” he says. Conversely, Peters saw Joe Donnelly’s failed campaign in 2018—in which Donnelly supported President Trump’s controversial immigration policies—as further proof of the need for a new direction. “It alienated the base,” he says. “The base does the fieldwork, the donor contact, the phone calls. They are the true believers, and they don’t want to hear how you are supporting a woman-groping blowhard.” Peters hopes IYD’s efforts help young Democrats finally shed “conventions that have been pushed on us by the party. This idea that you have to run in the middle, that’s BS, and people aren’t listening to it anymore.”

IYD member Elise Shrock sympathizes with Peters’s view. “For a while, the moniker ‘young Democrat’ here meant ‘wait your turn,’” she says. “You were preparing to be taken seriously.” While still young at 33, Shrock is no political novice. She volunteered on her first campaign while in high school when her uncle, John Fernandez, ran against Todd Rokita for Indiana Secretary of State. She also served for several years as the director of communications for the Indiana Senate Democratic Caucus. “As young people, we’ve seen a lot of the same faces running for some of our top seats,” she says. “I don’t know if that’s a winning recipe moving forward.”

Peters feels that it’s time for a change in philosophy. “You look at the track record of the current leadership, and we have done nothing but lose for the past 10 years,” he says. “I think Hoosiers are absolutely ready for a progressive Democrat who can speak to them in a way that makes them feel heard, and the leadership in the party hasn’t allowed those candidates an opportunity to even try.”

Longtime Democrat operative Kip Tew loves seeing what his youthful counterparts are up to. “It’s heartwarming for an old guy like me,” says the 57-year-old 2004 state Democratic chairman. He likens the current moment to the one that accompanied his own entrée into Indiana politics in the 1980s, when Evan Bayh was elected governor at the age of 32. “The party can’t be full of septuagenarians and octogenarians,” he says. “You have to renew it every now and then, and get people excited about what you’re trying to do.”

Still, the challenges facing Indiana Democrats today are far more daunting than they were when Bayh was first elected in 1988. Back then, Democrats held six state congressional districts in Indiana; today, they hold two. The Indiana House of Representatives was split evenly between the two parties; now, house Democrats are outnumbered 67 to 33. It’s even more lopsided in the State Senate, where there are 40 Republicans to 10 Democrats. Why are things so unbalanced now? “That’s the $50,000 question,” Tew says. Part of the problem, he believes, is what he calls “Trump fever.”

“It hasn’t broken in Indiana yet,” Tew says. “That, in essence, is why we have lagged behind other states.”

[pullquote align=”right” caption=”Abby Bauer/Indiana Federation of Young Republicans”]”Tweets do not win elections”[/pullquote]

Of course, Republicans in this state see the recent failure of Hoosier Democrats as having a different cause. “It’s very simple,” says Pete Seat, executive director of strategic communications for the Indiana Republican Party. “Republicans have entered a sacred trust with the citizens of this state, who see that the growth and prosperity they are looking for come as a direct result of the Republican supermajorities.”

Nor is Seat worried about the growth of the IYD. “I have heard more about the Denver Broncos than I have about the Indiana Young Democrats,” he says. “I would also say, from our side of the aisle, we have an extremely strong network of College Republican and Young Republican chapters.”

According to outgoing Indiana Federation of Young Republicans president Abby Bauer, IFYR boasts 2,290 members throughout 35 county chapters in Indiana. That makes IYD’s 300-person statewide membership look rather paltry by comparison. Yet, despite its smaller size, IYD seems more energized than its Republican rival. For example, digging up information online about the Indiana Federation of Young Republicans is challenging. As of this writing, its website leads to an error page. Its social media presence is stagnant, which may explain why IYD has twice as many followers than IFYR on Facebook and Twitter.

Nevertheless, even in the era of a Twitter presidency, Bauer isn’t too concerned. “Tweets do not win elections,” she says. Meanwhile, IYD reported more in donations than IFYR in 2018, but Bauer shrugged that off, too. “Fundraising has never been a core focus of the Young Republicans,” she says. “I firmly see our job as the grassroots arm of the state GOP and various campaigns.” Bauer credits the group’s efforts for helping to elect Senators Mike Braun and Todd Young, as well as Governor Eric Holcomb. “Each time the media tells us you can’t beat an incumbent or you can’t win against the Democratic party’s golden boy, we keep our heads down and concentrate on the work that needs to be done,” she says. “Which is, and always will be, winning elections.”

One “golden boy” the Republicans beat in 2014 was Ford. At the time, his opponent, Delph, defeated Ford with 54 percent of the vote. Four years later, Ford challenged Delph again. This time, the results reversed, with Ford winning the election with 57 percent of the vote. Not only did Ford become the first openly gay person ever to serve in the Indiana General Assembly, but he was the first Democrat to flip a State Senate seat in 30 years. For Sager, IYD’s executive director, Ford’s election is a kind of blueprint for how Democrats can start reclaiming their role in Indiana politics. “He moved the needle the first time, and won the second time,” she says. “It’s a formula we can replicate in other areas.”

In 2018, Democrats fared well in neighboring states. They won gubernatorial races in Illinois and Michigan. In the latter, Democrats also swept all statewide offices. That year’s blue wave missed Indiana. But IYD’s members wouldn’t mind if it arrived four years late. With more than 75 young Democrat candidates lined up for the next election, they’re poised for battle. But Shrock says Democrats hoping for a tidal change overnight should check their expectations. “If you think this process is one of instant gratification, you are setting yourself up for disappointment,” she says. “Real, lasting change takes years. You keep chipping away. And right now, there are a lot of us who are chipping away.”