A lousy election for Indiana Democrats, public education

Public schools lost some loyal advocates in the Indiana legislature last week with the defeat of Democratic Sen. Tim Skinner and Reps. Shelli VanDenburgh and Mara Candelaria Reardon.

Skinner, a former school teacher from Terre Haute, may have been the most outspoken supporter of public schools in the General Assembly. He lost his bid for a fourth term by more than 1,000 votes to Republican Jon Ford, a business owner.

Tim Skinner

Tim Skinner

VanDenburgh, from Crown Point, and Reardon, from Munster, were part of a northwestern Indiana Democratic delegation that advocated reliably in the House for public schools. VanDenburgh lost a close contest to Julie Olthoff, a Merrillville ad agency owner. Reardon’s narrow loss to Munster attorney Bill Fine means there is now only one Hispanic legislator in a state that is over 6 percent Hispanic. (That’s Rep. Christina Hale, an Indianapolis Democrat who is part Cuban-American).

Republicans expanded their super majorities in both the House and Senate with the election. They now control the House, 71-29, and the Senate, 40-10. On partisan issues – and there are a lot of them in education – Democrats will do well to get a word in edgewise.

Senate Republicans put more than $100,000 into Ford’s campaign. Skinner got some help from the Indiana State Teachers Association but it was too little, too late.

Olthoff’s campaign against VanDenburgh picked up nearly $75,000 in late, large contributions as her supporters apparently realized she could win. About half came from the House Republican campaign committee and the rest from the school-voucher advocacy group Hoosiers for Quality Education.

Democrats did add one education advocate to their thin ranks: Daleville teacher Melanie Wright defeated 23-year GOP lawmaker L. Jack Lutz, who blamed ISTA money and attack ads for his loss.

In southern Indiana, the ISTA and other public education supporters threw in big for Jeff Sparks, who challenged Republican incumbent Matt Ubelhor in District 62. But Sparks didn’t come close.

Overall it was a disappointing election for education-minded Indiana Democrats, just two years after Glenda Ritz shocked the nation by upsetting Superintendent of Public Instruction Bennett in what was widely seen as an affirmation of public education. Ritz campaigned this year for some of the Democratic legislative candidates, but her support didn’t seem to have much of an impact.

7 thoughts on “A lousy election for Indiana Democrats, public education

  1. It sickens me that Tim Skinner lost his bid for reelection. Such a strong public schools advocate. His voice will be greatly missed at the State House.

  2. I think you’re missing the historical perspective here. My US history teacher once told me that Braxton Bragg won every battle in the Kentucky Campaign in the Civil War yet still lost the campaign (just to be clear, the analogy is not intended to liken the GOP to the confederates as anyone who is familiar with history knows the GOP was on the other side of the war). Election campaigns are very similar to war in that it may appear a side is winning from the battles when they are in fact greatly weakened.

    *Note: The following is based on my personal research. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong (especially since I am unable to edit WordPress comments after posting, which is annoying to say the least, especially when posting something long like this).
    A big part of what happened is explained by the fact the GOP redistricted the state like crazy after the 2010 election.

    First, it was inevitable that Lake County would flip after redistricting. Only 1 out of 9 (11%) representatives from Lake County were Republicans after the 2010 election but 36% were voting Republican in that election (In 2010, 59175 Democrat representative votes in total in the county and 32885 Republican representative votes in total in the county in 2010. In 2014, 56207 Democrat representative votes and 28674 Republican representative votes.) What happened is it went to the opposite end of the spectrum. Now you have 4 out 8 representatives as Republican and thus 50% representation, though the number voting Republican in Lake County for their representative is actually closer to 35% now. The 15% gerrymandering advantage is in line with numbers I am seeing across the state. VanDenburgh loss is the result of a delayed reaction to the redistricting in 2010.

    Second, Skinner’s seat was not up for election in 2012, probably because the GOP knew they didn’t stand a chance against Skinner in a presidential election year even with redistricting. Even with it not being a presidential election year this year, Skinner still won Vigo County, which was the only county he got votes from in the 2010 election he won. GOP saw that seat in play and took it.

    Third, we would be better off learning from Melanie’s victory. Not only did the Dems in Madison county get the Republicans to stay home with her negative campaign ads (5674 less votes for Republican Secretary of State compared to 2546 less for Democrat Secretary of State), but she picked up crossover votes (14057 votes for Democrat representatives compared with 13167 Democratic Secretary of State votes and even less Democrat auditors votes).

    Melanie’s campaign provides a way forward for Dems: appeal to moderates and neutralize Republican loyalists. Republicans are weakened and they know it; Democrats forced them to capitulate on education and now they have to live up to their promises. The game plan is there for a 2016 comeback depending on how the GOP performs and how the Dems do in seizing on their failures. Obviously, Dems weren’t able finalize the sale this time to the necessary amount of fench sitters with frustration with both parties nearing all-time highs.

    • Jorge, you’re certainly right about redistricting being a big factor. I don’t know Lake County politics, but apparently the Republicans removed enough Democrats from the Reardon and VanDenburgh districts to flip them, the same way they did with conservative Democrat Peggy Welch’s district in Monroe/Morgan counties. Reardon and VanDenburgh held on in 2012 (Welch didn’t), but not this year. WBEZ reported that Reardon’s district had had a Democratic Latino rep for 36 years; but many Latino voters were redistricted out. I’d say you’re close when you write that the district boundaries create a 15 percent R advantage. It’s not small-d democratic, is it?

  3. Pingback: Glenda Ritz leaves office with an unexpected legacy: Both energizing leader and one-hit wonder | Chalkbeat

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