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Red tide, white people and blue Democrats: A post-election dispatch



Any one who's paid an iota of attention to the media coverage preceding last week's mid-term elections knew that Democrats were almost certainly doomed.

Here at NUVO, the editorial staff kept its expectations low and its chemical intake high, each handling news of the results in his or her own way.

A few of us went to the Gogol Bordello concert at the Vogue and remained blissfully ignorant until the next day.

One stayed up all night "developing ulcers."

Another ordered Chinese takeout, smoked some pot, and watched the first Twilight movie with friends, despite having declared openly and variously that he would never watch that movie, or its sequels.

Shame is clearly not in some of our vocabularies.

The election results, as we all know by now, were as predicted. The youth vote that ushered in President Barack Obama two years ago stayed home. Ditto for minorities. Old white people who said they wanted their country back turned out in droves. The so-called "Red Tide" of Tea Party-fueled Republican enthusiasm swept across middle America.

Except for notable victories in Marion County – most importantly, Democrat Terry Curry's win for Marion County Prosecutor – Democrats had a pretty bad day:

Nationally, Republicans took the United States House of Representatives and whittled the Democratic hold in the Senate to an-even-less-filibuster-proof-than-before majority.

In Indiana, majority control of the State House of Representatives was handed to Republicans as well, giving Republicans power over both chambers (they already had the State Senate).

Property tax caps – state Republicans' centerpiece legislation of the last few years — were enshrined more or less permanently in the Indiana State Constitution.

Many Democrats were quick to blame the results on the influence of big money, following the Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision, which loosened restrictions on corporate campaign contributions. But that influence remains unclear for now, except in races like the Indiana Senate race, in which Republican Dan Coats clearly outspent his opponent, Brad Ellsworth.

"It will be interesting so see how the campaign finance controversy works out," said Gerald Wright, professor of political science at IU Bloomington. "It will be hard to vote against bills calling for clean disclosure, even for Republicans who were helped by it – and may be hurt next time."

The truth, for Democrats, may be less comfortable, representing a true ideological shift in the American electorate. The president put it best (and most infamously), when he said in a fairly conciliatory press conference that his party had sustained a thorough "shellacking."

It was an interesting word choice. According to the editors at Merriam-Webster, who have seen a spike in queries about the term at, "shellac had come to mean both 'to get drunk' and 'to beat up' as a slang term by the 1930s, and one (or both) of these senses led to the 'defeat decisively' meaning used today."

Through the bleary-eyed haze of a mild hangover, this double meaning seemed uncomfortably à propos.

A chance encounter

The French surrealist Comte de Lautréamont once wrote about the beautiful things that emerge from "the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table."

His point, though a bit ethereal (and, let's face it, very French), was that the juxtaposition of one idea, detail or object against another often elicits a third, surprising idea – that which most of us call art.

The possibility embedded in such juxtapositions is one of many reasons why Google Reader, which aggregates my daily news feed from scores of different sources, is such a beautiful thing.

As I sat cherry-picking my news the morning after the elections, two articles arrived in my Google Reader at roughly the same time.

One was about a report released by Indiana University's Kelly School of Business, on the state's economic prospects for the coming year.

"The past year has been one of disappointingly weak recovery, and, sadly, we expect that 2011 will bring more of the same," said Bill Witte, associate professor emeritus of economics at IU Bloomington, upon the paper's release. "The watchword for the economy going into the New Year is uncertainty."

The other was a report detailing some of Gov. Mitch Daniels' plans for the coming legislative session, now that his party has consolidated power at the Statehouse.

Specifically, it detailed his plans to slash unemployment benefits – because of, not despite, the continuing economic downturn.

Thus, from this Lautréamontian "chance encounter" in my Google Reader a vision for Indiana emerged: Voil√†, le future!

As bad as the losses sustained by Democrats were on a national level, the truth is that, with a split congress and a Democratic White House, the best either side can hope for is a gridlock that doesn't shut down the government completely, like we saw in the Bill Clinton years.

In Indiana, a clear mandate has emerged. The Daniels legislative agenda – which, for the last four years has been kept in check by the maneuverings of former Indiana House Speaker Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) – now has a clear channel through which to sail. Democrats will have little recourse.

I talked to Bauer a few days after the election. He sounded like he'd been through hell.

"They nationalized our local races," he said, referring to the successful Republican strategy. "It wasn't state issues, it was national issues. They Obama-cized it."

Daniels has made no secret that he has an ambitious agenda to push now that he's consolidated power. Chief among those plans, aside from cutting unemployment insurance, are an education revamp and a push to create an environment more conducive to the success of the private sector.(For a full outline of Daniels' 2011 legislative priorities,

Bauer said he fears the new Daniels mandate will lead to the state's "formalizing the governor's lack of enforcement in the environment and public safety," and to "the end of free public schools, or very much narrowing them down" in favor of for-profit charters.

All these changes, he argued, will be bad for the middle and working classes.

"We lost working class people and they're the ones that are going to get hit hard," he said.

And the winners are...

Not everyone is bummed about the election. By definition, the majority, in most elections, isn't.

Curt Smith is stoked, for starters. Smith heads the Indiana Family Institute (IFI) – a Christian, socially-conservative group, associated with Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family. IFI advocates for "family-friendly" policy like an anti-gay marriage amendment, and pro-life legislation like the so-called "Conscience Clause" – which would allow doctors and pharmacists the right to deny birth-control treatments based on their religious beliefs.

Smith's been around the political scene long enough to have learned a few things, having spent 15 years in Washington working in various capacities for Senator-elect Dan Coats and former Rep. John Hostettler.

He said he expects a vote in the late winter or early spring on a same-sex marriage amendment. He also anticipated forthcoming votes on the Conscience Clause and for stripping funding from Planned Parenthood. The people's will, he said, would finally get a chance to be heard, unimpeded as it has been by Bauer and his cohorts.

"I would argue that the agenda hasn't changed, we're just going to take it up for the first time in six years," Smith said.

Bauer argued that, with looser restrictions on campaign donations, groups like IFI and Christian fundamentalist Eric Miller's Advance Indiana had effectively bought the election.

Smith had a different interpretation. Seven of nine candidates for State Representative backed by IFI had won, but only two were likely to have been decisively influenced by his group, he estimated. Asked whether he thought groups like his would have more influence over the newly-aligned Statehouse, he sought to reframe.

"I don't know that we'll wield more influence, as much as it will be a more receptive audience," he said. "We're pretty much an organization that is built on persuasion. And I think this group is more persuadable."

It's been widely noted that Republicans statewide will have authority over how to draw new district lines once the 2010 Census data is released, which could give them a distinct electoral advantage for at least the next few elections. In that context, such acts of persuasion alluded to by Smith stand to last a long, long time.


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