Why Indiana’s GOP Can’t Be Trumped

Indiana, you might have heard, is now a red state. Sure, a Democrat held one of its two Senate seats during the thick of the Trump presidency. But the now-former Sen. Joe Donnelly was an artifact of another political time—elected in 2012 on the coattails of the former President Barack Obama, who pulled off an improbable victory of his own statewide in the 2008 presidential election. Today, the most prominent Hoosier Democrat is the former mayor of South Bend, a city of just over 100,000. He holds office in President Joe Biden’s cabinet for lack of any better political opportunity. The last Democrat to be elected to a statewide position at home was former Gov. Frank O’Bannon, in 2000.

Gov. Eric Holcomb (GOP)
Gov. Eric Holcomb

All of which, in the zero-sum game that is American electoral politics, means things have never been better for Republicans. Gov. Eric Holcomb skated to re-election despite a double-digit showing from a Libertarian Party candidate critical of his COVID-19 policies. The party dominates Indiana’s powerful General Assembly, while ambitious Hoosier Republicans in Washington, such as Sen. Todd Young and Rep. Jim Banks, snag national headlines. Some even have ambitions to flip the 1st Congressional District in the northwest corner of the state, which hasn’t elected a Republican since the Calvin Coolidge administration.

But you don’t need to be a political junkie to know that most Republicans have experienced turbulence in recent years, induced by the flaxen-haired, 244-pound elephant in the room that is the former President Donald Trump. Trump’s brand of inflammatory culture-war politics once seemed to be the opposite of the stolid, sensible Hoosier stereotype. The state’s voters bear-hugged him regardless. One might think that would have brought about an identity crisis within the party, as exemplified by the jarring contrast between Trump and his uber-conservative, yet relatively genteel, vice president and former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, or especially Pence’s successor in Holcomb. 

One would be wrong.

Sen. Todd Young (GOP)
Sen. Todd Young

“I don’t think it’s any more heightened today than it was at any other time in our history,” says Kyle Hupfer, the state party chairman, of its internal conflict. “We are lockstep with the House Republican campaign committee, our state Senate campaign committee. We work hand in hand with the Republican National Committee.”

It might sound like a bit of all-in-the-same-gang hype, and surely in part it is. But behind Hupfer’s happy front is a sobering political reality: The Republican Party has made its peace with the transformation that Trump foisted on it and is positioned better than ever in states like Indiana to capitalize on a favorable electoral landscape.

“We really haven’t split into factions, which we’ve seen happen in other states,” says Limestone Strategies’s Cam Savage, a GOP consultant whose clients have included Young, Indiana House Speaker Todd Huston, and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. “What Democrats are always rooting for is a fracture like you’ve seen in Kansas, and we’ve not seen that here.”

Even Indiana’s relative firebrands like state Attorney General Todd Rokita, a nearly 10-year congressman (and Indiana secretary of state for equally as long), or Banks, now chairman of the powerful Republican Study Committee, are company men. The state GOP is dominant largely because of its institutional discipline, and it’s resilient to the political trends that have purpled other Midwestern states because of the state’s favorable demographics. It sometimes seems like, quite literally, they can’t lose.

Which makes the state party’s character—Trump-friendly, but not necessarily obsessive; reflexively nationalistic; still mostly deferential to the free market—as good a case study as any for what it means to be a mainstream Republican in 2022. Hoosier Republicanism is, appropriately enough for the “Crossroads of America,” at the party’s dead center. It’s a model for the campaigns by which the GOP hopes to take back Congress nationwide this November. Whether one is thrilled or terrified by that reality, understanding how and why Indiana Republicans found themselves there is key to understanding this political moment.

[pullquote align=”left” caption=”IUPUI professor emeritus Sheila Kennedy”]There was always a fringe, just as the Democrats always had the left-wing fringe.[/pullquote] 

THE INDIANA GOP’s origin story could start like this: In the beginning, there was … not much, actually.

“When I got back from the Army in 1964, I didn’t know anyone, and among the things I tried to get to know people was joining the local Republican club,” says Ned Lamkin, a veteran of the Indiana House of Representatives, who served from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. “What I found was a social gathering. They had no interest in public policy; they were only interested in getting together and keeping their party in power. I found that absolutely unacceptable.”

Lamkin and a group of idealistic Marion County Republicans (which included future Indianapolis mayor and U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and future Lt. Gov. John Mutz, among others) banded together to supplant the old, patronage-driven system and reinvent the state GOP in their own image. Their policy-first, business-centric approach to politics transformed Indianapolis—largely by unifying it with Marion County, a move that’s still controversial today. But it also set the tone for the next several decades of politics in Indiana on both sides of the aisle.

“It was a different party,” says Sheila Kennedy, a professor emeritus at IUPUI and Republican congressional candidate in the early 1980s. “[Former Republican mayor of Indianapolis] Bill Hudnut wasn’t out there talking about ‘welfare mothers.’ The kinds of people that we created on both sides of the political spectrum here in Indiana, like [former Democratic congressman] Lee Hamilton, were very intelligent people who understood complexity, and could deal with ambiguity.”

For decades, the archetypal Hoosier politician fit that mold: mild-mannered, business-friendly, policy-minded, and, above all, statesmanlike. The former Sen. Dan Quayle, who defeated Democratic Hoosier icon Birch Bayh in 1980, was seen by many as a callow young upstart in comparison to his predecessor, a perception borne out by his disastrous vice presidency. Whether or not that impression was fair, such politicians had to come from somewhere. To view the pre-Trump history of conservative politics in Indiana as only one of wonky, free-market kumbaya-ism doesn’t quite capture the whole story.

“There was always a fringe, just as the Democrats always had the left-wing fringe,” Kennedy says. “Over the years, those folks gained a great deal more clout. As one of my friends who worked on my campaign said, ‘Well, it’s our fault. The sane people stayed home, and the evangelical, anti-choice, all of those people, went door to door, they did the grunt work, and they took over the party.’”

Ironically, one of the standard-bearers for a more hard-edged conservatism in Indiana looks like a model of moderation compared to the party’s fringe today: Mike Pence, who, after a failed 1988 congressional campaign, started his career as a conservative radio host describing himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” Pence-as-broadcaster was ahead of his time in many ways, railing against hypocritical career politicians in D.C., bashing the media, and indignantly defending the virtues of flag, faith, and family. He didn’t change his style much when he finally made it to Congress in 2001, or during the governorship last decade that would lead to an unlikely vice presidency.

Mike Pence (GOP)
Mike Pence

“The Pence people were definitely socially conservative; the Christian right were represented there,” says Tom LoBianco, a political reporter and author of Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House. “You also had more people from outside of Indianapolis involved with Pence, and you had more of the social conservatives who had been boxed out during Mitch Daniels’s eight years in the governor’s office and wanted in.”

That geographical divide within Indiana Republican politics is undeniable. The moderate wing of the party was and is a creature of greater Indianapolis. The rest of the state tends to birth its die-hard conservatives: see Rokita, a native of “The Region,” who has used his office as attorney general to relentlessly bash Holcomb, a son of the Marion County GOP, or U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, a businessman from Jasper, who is far less interested in bipartisanship than his fellow Sen. Todd Young, a former Lugar staffer.

In an era when all politics were still local, the moderates had the upper hand. After all, when labor unions are strong and “India-no-place” was developing into a regional hub—bringing jobs, culture, and pro football with it—hardcore culture-war rhetoric seemed a little less appealing. But over the past few decades, that approach has gained traction. The social causes that fueled both conservative Christians like Pence and bare-knuckled culture warriors like Rokita drove voters’ preferences more and more, as party identification became stronger and local media withered. As popular as he is today, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine a politician as pragmatic and mild-mannered as the current governor emerging from a statewide primary without throwing himself wholeheartedly into partisan warfare.

“When I see Gov. Holcomb now, we’ll go off and talk in the corner so people don’t notice it,” says John Gregg, a former Democratic Speaker of the House and Holcomb’s gubernatorial opponent in 2016. “But I can tell it drives these young staffers crazy. Like, ‘This guy’s the enemy.’ We enjoy talking with each other, and there’s a lot of stuff we share in common. If more people knew that, I’m afraid that would hurt him.” 

It’s a far cry from the era when, to hear Gregg and his contemporaries tell it, opponents would torch each other on the Legislature’s floor by day and reconcile over drinks by night. Both parties have undergone a dramatic transformation since then. Even relatively moderate figures like Young are obliged to partake in performative displays of Fox News–friendly bluster. But the critique posed by today’s partisan flamethrowers is worth considering in good faith: What, exactly, does the Indiana GOP have to show for all those years of chumminess?

AT THE TURN OF the century, Republican dominance of the governor’s mansion seemed about as distant a possibility as Democratic dominance of … well, pretty much anything in Indiana today. When Frank O’Bannon died in 2003, he was succeeded by his lieutenant governor Joe Kernan, who left office in January 2005. By then, a Republican hadn’t held the seat since the Reagan administration. But a small group of highly motivated, civic-minded Marion County Republicans had a plan to turn things around. The “Phoenix Group,” an effective shadow party formed by a group of Hoosier Republican moneymen, had a dream candidate-in-waiting ready to take on the incumbent: Mitch Daniels, a longtime Republican Party hand serving as then-President George W. Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget.

To say Daniels, who defeated Kernan by nearly 200,000 votes, remade Indiana’s Republican politics in his own image would be an understatement. In a way, the transformation he foisted on the party was as novel as the one it’s undergoing today. Daniels fused the reigning GOP moderates’ geniality and boosterism with a hard-edged, ideological commitment to austerity. Bush nicknamed him “the Blade” during his time at OMB for his unflinching commitment to slashing budgets. Daniels brought that commitment to the governor’s office, eliminating the state’s debt by any means necessary—frequently to the chagrin of critics, even some conservative ones, who questioned the wisdom of cutting back so deeply on state services and placing many into the hands of private corporations.

Mitch Daniels (Indiana GOP)
Mitch Daniels

The majority of Hoosier voters, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind. They reelected Daniels by nearly half a million votes in 2008, and then two years later handed him a Republican supermajority in the Statehouse and full control of the General Assembly. There was widespread speculation he would enter the 2012 GOP presidential primary. His appeal was so strong that his anointed successor, Pence, effectively rebranded himself as a Daniels clone for his own campaign, tamping down his social-conservative instincts and promising the austerity agenda would continue.

Once in office, however, Pence followed his conservative-Christian compass to the hilt, culminating in his support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would have strengthened private organizations’ legal defense against perceived religious discrimination. Critics, including many of the large corporations that revitalized Indianapolis’s downtown and served as close partners to the state GOP, claimed this would legalize the right to discriminate against the LGBT community. Pence’s popularity plummeted, and he was widely seen as cruising toward a reelection loss to Gregg in 2016 before Trump borrowed his religious credibility to calm the nervous national base.

And then everything changed. Trump’s willingness to use government as a tool for policy change inspired conservative thinkers to reconsider their dedication to the Reagan-era axiom: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” One of those thinkers is from right here at home: Aaron Renn, an Indianapolis-based social conservative, who last winter set the state’s conservative wonk-o-sphere ablaze with an essay in the journal American Affairs titled “Indiana under Republican Rule: ‘Pro-Business’ Policy Disappoints outside the Sunbelt.”

“Being ‘business-friendly’ has historically been core to [Indiana Republicans’] identity,” Renn wrote. “But today, big business has become a key enforcer of the progressive line in America. In this environment, being business-friendly and embracing a Republican agenda that goes beyond neoliberal economics are incompatible with each other … red states like Indiana do need to start protecting citizens from ideological coercion by big business, and from exploitation by abusive industries.”

Renn’s primary act of sacrilege was to torch the Daniels-Pence-Holcomb track record, arguing that their policies have failed Hoosiers outside Indianapolis and the doughnut counties. He advocates for a more muscular, state-driven approach to halting the decline, including family-friendly fiscal incentives, increased trade education, and spending on local capital improvements, similar to national Republicans like U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio, who have seen the Trump era as an opportunity for policy innovation. Of course, there’s one roadblock to such a sea change occurring: The residents of those very rural counties Renn describes tend to be the most unflinchingly loyal Republican voters. And they like the old-guard, get-off-my-lawn, individualistic approach to Republican politics, something Renn himself acknowledges.

“The insurgent politicians in the state have tended to not be Trumpist. In Indiana, the insurgency has remained mostly Tea Party–type libertarian,” Renn says. “The people of Indiana have to take a look in the mirror and say, ‘To some extent we are living in the kind of place that we ourselves have wanted.’”

And for what it’s worth, the state party is more than willing to defend exactly that kind of place.

“The proof’s in the pudding, and I’m not sure what he’s talking about,” the party chairman Hupfer says of Renn’s essay. “We had another record-level year of new job commitments from a wage standpoint; our unemployment is at an all-time low. Our economic policies in the state have greatly enhanced Hoosier lives.”

The party’s electoral dominance—out of 168 legislative and executive positions in the state, Democrats hold a grand total of 42—can largely be attributed to that slow, but continual economic growth the party has engendered. It’s also due to its unwillingness, a few close calls aside, to shoot itself in the foot by lurching so far right as to inspire a popular backlash like in ruby-red Kansas, where austerity measures that would have made even Daniels blush led to a Democratic resurgence.

So if the past two decades of Republican governance in the state saw a transition from the era of civic-minded, Lugar-style technocracy to the more strident Reaganite approach favored by Daniels and his successors—and if there’s little appetite among voters for Republicans to tell liberal corporations to go kick rocks, as culture warriors on the right now widely recommend—what might follow the Trump era’s political upheaval, in an environment with no obvious ideological successor?

USUALLY THESE high-profile battles for the soul of a party take place in ugly, competitive primary elections. Indiana doesn’t really do that kind of thing.

Sen. Mike Braun
Sen. Mike Braun
Former Rep. Luke Messer (Indiana GOP)
Former Rep. Luke Messer

When Daniels entered in 2004, he effectively cleared the field; Pence did the same. In the unusual circumstance of Pence’s 2016 withdrawal from his reelection campaign, the Indiana Republican State Committee voted on his replacement, selecting Holcomb on the second ballot. The closest thing to a heated primary Indiana Republicans have experienced in recent decades was the 2018 competition to oppose the Democratic Sen. Donnelly, contested by Rokita, then a sitting congressman; Shelbyville-area U.S. Rep. Luke Messer; and Braun, the eventual victor. Rokita and Messer both served in Congress. Messer and Braun both had experience in the General Assembly. All three were graduates of Wabash College.

A grand clash of worldviews this was not, despite the career-politician Rokita’s attempt to position himself opposite the “elites.” Braun massively outspent his opponents and didn’t rock the boat regarding Trump, and that’s all she wrote. But not all Hoosier Republicans are content simply to go with the flow, despite the considerable rewards. The evolution of the modern-day Indiana GOP has been almost subliminal, with a few notable exceptions.

One of those exceptions, of course, is Rokita, whose thirst for the headlines has defined his attorney generalship. (Rokita, elected in 2020, declined to comment for this story.) Rokita has publicly feuded with Holcomb over the latter’s handling of the pandemic, telling a local South Bend news station in December that “I don’t believe any [COVID] numbers anymore and I’m sorry about that, but they’re politicized. This has been politicized since day one.” Last summer, he publicly supported the General Assembly’s efforts to strip Holcomb of pandemic-related emergency powers.

As a rare bit of high-profile discord among top Hoosier Republicans, it can partially be chalked up to personal rivalry: Rokita’s name was in the ring as well for the 2016 nod to succeed Pence. But it also poses a serious political question that’s roiled under the surface of the Trump era, during what’s been otherwise a steady ascent for the party: How much nasty, public infighting is worth tolerating to protect, as Renn described, the interests of the “Tea Party–type” libertarian base?

Rokita’s culture war–oriented approach will likely soon get the road test he’s been itching for, as he’s widely expected to pursue the 2024 gubernatorial nomination when Holcomb’s term limits expire. (Among those speculated to throw their names in the ring are Rokita, Hupfer himself, Braun, Holcomb’s lieutenant governor Suzanne Crouch, and the recently retired U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth.)

Perhaps most interesting, however, is a politician who has managed to mostly avoid Rokita’s bad in-state press while working avidly to maintain his Trump-right bona fides: Rep. Jim Banks, the two-term congressman from Indiana’s 3rd Congressional District based in Fort Wayne.

At the beginning of 2021, the Republican Study Committee, Congress’s largest conservative bloc, voted Banks its chairman, a coup for an ambitious young congressman. Banks has railed against the excesses of “woke capital” to the Claremont Institute, a major intellectual organ of Trumpism; he has jumped on a podcast with the youth-oriented right-wing group American Moment; his ballyhooed “working-class memo,” written in the aftermath of Trump’s 2020 loss, argues that the GOP can “broaden our electorate, increase voter turnout, and take back the House by enthusiastically rebranding and reorienting as the Party of the Working Class.”

“He’s on cable news every night, he has a massive social media following, he’s becoming a nationally influential figure in the Republican Party, and he’s very conservative. But if you look at his working-class memo, if you look at various pieces of legislation he’s putting out, it’s different [from the pre-Trump status quo],” says Renn, citing Banks’s proposed Hospital Competition Act, which, in a decidedly not-free-market-friendly manner, seeks to restrict hospital mergers and equalize some patient rates.

Of course, Banks isn’t just a wonk. In January 2020, he attacked one of the right’s favorite punching bags, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, over her remarks about her struggles with PTSD, calling them “a disgrace and offensive to our nation’s veterans.” He voted not to certify Arizona and Pennsylvania’s electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election. In October 2021, he took to Twitter to harass Rachel Levine, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health and a transgender woman, after her promotion to admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, saying, “The title of first female four-star officer gets taken by a man.” (Twitter suspended his account, saying the tweet violated their policy against harassment.)

[pullquote align=”left” caption=”GOP consultant Cam Savage”]The idea that we’re going to be unprepared or that we’re going to take anybody lightly? Not fucking likely.[/pullquote] 

Whitley Yates, the Indiana GOP’s director of diversity and engagement, conducts the party’s diversity leadership series, meant to increase engagement among racial minority Republicans across the state. But she says that a beneficial side effect of the group has been to build communication between the same two groups that Banks manages to simultaneously placate: more sober, traditionally policy-minded conservatives, and the restive, Trump-inspired base that serves as their electoral bedrock.

“One of the gentlemen in this series, from Lake County, was discussing his disdain for the election process, and saying how the election was stolen,” Yates says. “And then one of the other participants was discussing the fact that the data doesn’t suggest that. Whether or not the data supports it, it’s important for us to make sure that at the end of the day, we do not have any election issues. So how can we work together to get that done? U.S. Sen. Todd Young definitely bridges that gap, as well as Congressman Jim Banks.”

Through its close ties to the national party, institutional discipline, and the state’s favorable demographics amid the partisan trends that have grown Republicans’ general-election base, the Indiana GOP has managed to beat back the leftward shift among suburban voters that has made Democrats increasingly competitive in nearby states like Wisconsin and Michigan. On the other side of the Trump presidency, in a sea of safe-red federal and state-level seats (for the time being), the party is, as Hupfer described, in lockstep in its pursuit of the new conservative status quo: guns, God, and good old low taxes, while allowing room for some innovation at the margins. And most crucially of all: not alienating Trump’s base, no matter how hostile to democracy itself they might become.

That approach has worked quite well for them so far, sometimes strangely so: Mike Pence, the embodiment of that tightrope act who inspired calls for his hanging during the pro-Trump January 6 riots, consistently polls near the top of the 2024 Republican presidential primary field. As the former governor and vice president knows all too well, the strategy has a glaring risk: Tolerate an angry mob for too long, and eventually you’ll become its target.

And as unified and powerful as it is at the moment, if the Indiana GOP wants to enjoy this state of affairs for another two decades or more, it has a formidable challenge ahead in keeping that mob happy while not going so far as to incite widespread backlash. Indiana Democrats long for such a fatal move, praying that Hoosier-in-exile Pete Buttigieg will return to the state someday and vie for the governor’s mansion.

“Stuff like this is cyclical, but we might be just starting this wandering in the wilderness,” says Gregg. “It’ll bounce back, but I think it’s going to be a while. President Trump and his philosophy are real popular in Indiana.”

Indiana’s Republicans are highly aware of that. But they’re also aware of the importance in politics of one thing the former president and party standard-bearer never quite excelled at: preparation. If ambitious Democrats are counting on catching local Republicans asleep at the wheel, they might be waiting another 17 years, as long as it’s been since Daniels took office.

“You build the boat before the rain starts,” says Savage, the GOP consultant. “The idea that we’re going to be unprepared or that we’re going to take anybody lightly? Not fucking likely.”