By BRIAN A. HOWEY
Kyle Hupfer has been, arguably, the most successful major party chairman in Indiana history. His Democrat counterpart, Mike Schmuhl, is attempting to get his party back in the game.
When it comes to straight tenure, the late Indiana Republican Chairman Gordon Durnil had the helm for eight years under Gov. Robert D. Orr. The Indiana congressional delegation was held by the Democrats during four of those years. Compare that to out-going Indiana Republican Chairman Hupfer, who left office on Thursday after the GOP Central Committee elected Anne Hathaway as the first female at the helm.
During Hupfer’s tenure, Hoosier Republicans never lost a constitutional Statehouse office. There were four consecutive General Assembly supermajorities (and six overall), while under Durnil the GOP House majority topped out at 63 seats twice. And in his final election as chair, Democrat Evan Bayh was elected governor and the Indiana House split 50/50.
During Hupfer’s reign, the GOP held the Indiana House congressional delegation 7-2; and in 2018, Republican Mike Braun upset Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly. Gov. Eric Holcomb was reelected with 56.5% of the vote and a record 1,706,727 votes (that compares to Bayh’s 62% reelection victory in 1992 with 1,382,151 votes). Under Durnil, Orr was reelected with 52% and Lt. Gov. John Mutz was defeated by Bayh in 1988.
Under Hupfer, Hoosier Republicans hold more than 90% of county offices and won a record 70 mayoral races in 2019. Hupfer raised $34.75 million for the Eric Holcomb For Indiana campaign as treasurer and $21.8 million for the Indiana GOP.
“Kyle Hupfer’s tenure as chairman of the Indiana Republican Party has proudly been one for the record books,” Holcomb said last week. “When he assumed the role in 2017, many believed the Indiana Republican Party had reached its apex. Instead, Kyle pulled together and led a team that was able to defy the annual odds.”
What does Hupfer attribute to this historic success? It was creating unified campaigns under the state GOP umbrella. “The first impactful thing we did was really locking hands with a governor, which had never been done before,” Hupfer told me. “We expanded that in ’18 knowing that we had an incumbent U.S. senator on the Democratic side we were going to try and beat. We recreated how the state party operated on a statewide basis in those general elections. We started early and got buy-ins from the statewides, from the congressionals; buy-in from the federal side of things and then ran one campaign. All the grassroots folks were state party employees. We did GOTV, we were recruiting, making calls, knocking on doors, distributing signs, pushing absentees, mail; we were doing all of those nuts and bolts GOTV and we won.”
With the unified campaigns, he was able to share resources. “We’ve had really, really good data so when we’re running these cohesive, one statewide plan, that data gets to everyone,” Hupfer said. “If it’s not in their hands it’s impacting them by the way we’re using it and so we’re deep into polling, deep into modeling.”
Where does this leave Hoosier Democrats, who are at a low, low ebb?
Schmuhl, who took the helm in 2021 after managing Pete Buttigieg’s $100 million 2020 presidential campaign, has started by raising money. “You’ve got to raise a lot of money to be successful in politics and with campaigns,” he said. “We had an operating budget of about $1 million a year and we’ve doubled that. That’s allowed us to hire more people, hire more organizers around the state, make some investments in technology for different tools to reach more voters.”
This year, Schmuhl hopes to increase the party’s 47 mayors, believing Democrats have a good chance of holding on to Indianapolis and Fort Wayne by reelecting Joe Hogsett and Tom Henry, while targeting Michigan City, Terre Haute, Lawrence, Evansville, Muncie and Carmel. “Those communities are where we have great candidates who are putting together great bids to become leaders of their communities,” Schmuhl said.
He expects Jennifer McCormick, a former Republican who served as the superintendent of public instruction, to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2024, riding such issues as abortion access, school security and the GOP’s overreach on matters like banning library books. “Jennifer is making the rounds, and she’s doing everything you need to do to be a serious candidate,” Schmuhl said. “She’s meeting people at the grassroots level, she’s working on raising more money. I think she has a strong message.”
Democrats are recruiting candidates for the General Assembly in 2024. Schmuhl believes the current environment will lead to a revived party.
“Which record is longer? President Biden’s legislative record or Trump’s felony count?” Schmuhl asked. “When you look at what Joe Biden has been able to accomplish with the slimmest of majorities during his first two years — the American Rescue Plan; the Inflation Reduction Act; the Sacred Communities Act, which addresses gun violence; the Bipartisan Infrastructure deal; the CHIPs Act — these are monumental pieces of legislation.
“The other side, Donald Trump, all they want to do is talk 24/7 about the politics of division,” he said. “They don’t have a 21st century plan for the future. Their agenda is division, culture wars, pitting people against one another, making our dialogue fractured and limited access to the ballot box. That’s their path to success. That’s wrong.”
-Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.