Where We Go: Reforming the Indiana Democratic Party

January 27, 2021

The contents of this memo are the culmination of several meetings with, many conversations between, and a poll of stakeholders within the Indiana Democratic Party. I have also added my own recommendations when relevant.

Indiana Democrats have not won a statewide election since 2012, and 2020 was a brutal shellacking. The Democratic gubernatorial nominee lost by 25 points, even with the Libertarian siphoning off over 11%, by capitalizing on anti-maskers. Even though one seat was flipped in each the state House and Senate, we lost 5 incumbent House races, including my own, and failed to flip a Congressional seat that was one of DCCC’s top priorities, despite breaking fundraising records.

Unlike the Texas Democratic Party, which created a “deep dive” committee to analyze the causes of their 2020 underperformance, Indiana did not, which is why I sought to find some of the answers on my own.

One of the challenges of determining how we proceed is that the big-tent nature of the party makes it difficult to build consensus around what the party’s message should be. This was widely evident across conversations and survey results. But while different factions of the party will disagree when it comes to striking more of a moderate vs. progressive, rural vs. urban, old vs. young, or establishment vs. new “tone” for the party, there is broad consensus around one unifying idea: It is time to get back to basics.

Overwhelmingly, Indiana Democrats agree that the party needs a bottom-up rebuild that will take many years, many dollars, and a lot of sweat, beginning with the refocus on precinct committees. Additionally, unclear channels of communication between different branches of the party and a lack of focus on electoral politics that was supplanted by intraparty minutiae were also cited as reasons for the party’s weakness.

A complete reversion to 1990s Indiana Democratic politics will not be our white knight, but it is important to build on the successes of that era and the behind-the-scenes talent who made it happen. Some of these goals will certainly be called unrealistic; others, stupidly obvious. But the reality of our current electoral predicament necessitates big, ambitious new ideas coupled with the hard truth that rebuilding basic infrastructure and processes needs to be done concurrently.

I think often about all the folks who donated their free time and money to my campaigns, and I still feel an immense sense of gratitude. I learned a lot during my two runs, and I want future candidates to replicate our good strategies and not repeat the mistakes I made. The current version of the Republican party is so warped that we must all spend significant amounts of time and energy ensuring that it is made history. The goals on the following page outline the key initiatives that the next leadership of the Indiana Democratic Party must prioritize in order to be successful. The work starts now.

Chris Chyung

The Goals

  1. Precinct & County Committees: Fill all vacancies for precinct committeeperson on the 2022 primary ballot.
  • Easier said than done. To help accomplish this, pressure must be put on county chairs; tracking vacancies across the thousands of precincts across 92 counties cannot be done without help by a single staffer and is a waste of resources. Keeping a record of the party’s recruitment progress in a single, publicly available shared document will ensure that county committees are accountable and responsive in achieving this.
  • Provide stronger guidelines for operating county parties. This set of goals, spearheaded by activist precinct committeepersons in Lake County, can be a starting point for the more underdeveloped county committees.

2. Targeted Voter Registration: Register 220,000 new voters before the November 2022 election.

  • The party must leverage partnerships with existing groups that are already doing voter registration and register year-round, not just during election season. While it is easier and cheaper to turn out existing registered voters, we risk political obsolescence by not ensuring that our new base, especially youth voters, people of color, and suburbanites, are explicitly listened to.

3. Winning Elections: Flip and defend key seats across the state, from statewide to town council.

  • After redistricting and after completing a precinct-by-precinct analysis of past election results, the party must explicitly decide which races are top targets and which are not. The lack of support from the party for state legislative candidates in past cycles makes it clear that this obvious measure was not taken, instead replaced by sole focus on top-of-the-ticket candidates.
  • Same as precinct committee recruitment, candidate recruitment for elected offices must be tracked in a single, publicly available shared document to ensure that no stone is left unturned when recruiting for even the smallest of offices. If candidates cannot be promised significant financial and logistical support (once they meet certain conditions), then it will be impossible to recruit high-quality candidates (see #6).
  • In addition to flipping key seats, the party must defend incumbents from both primary and general election challenges.

4. Breaking Voter Turnout Records: Hit 65% turnout in 2022 — the same turnout as 2020.

  • Indiana consistently ranks among the lowest turnout states in the country. Even 65% in 2020 was below the national average of 67% and far behind Minnesota’s first-in-the nation 80% turnout. While past orthodoxy stated that “Democrats win in presidential years because of high turnout”, that is becoming a hard sell in Indiana during the Trump Era, making midterm elections more challenging and important than ever before.
  • A robust vote-by-mail and absentee ballot chase program are key to engaging sporadic Democratic voters. Educating Hoosiers that this option exists needs to be a coordinated effort by every Democrat across the state, even before election season.

5. Data: Provide free VAN access to all Democratic incumbents and Democrats in general elections, along with training for VAN, MiniVAN Touch, Mobilize.us, and other relevant tools (Slack, Twilio, Spoke, Hustle, etc).

  • VAN access should not be used as a revenue raising tool for the party.

6. Fundraising:

  • After completing a precinct-by-precinct analysis of past election results, fundraising goals must not only be tailored to the needs of each of the high priority races, but they should also be enough for key staff, statewide polling, a statewide vote-by-mail program, and statewide mass text outreach.
  • Set a measurable standard in order for medium priority races to get bumped to high priority and receive funding from the state party, eg. a requirement that the candidate’s committee raise some multiple of their win number in order to qualify (to ensure “skin in the game”, similar to a matching contribution system).
  • There must be true coordination with caucuses, not a cannibalization of resources or turf wars. Defer to caucuses’ expertise in funding legislative candidates, after candidates meet certain requirements, as previously described.
  • Set a goal to allocate over 80% of funds raised to direct voter contact.
  • Add non-voting advisory members to the State Central Committee who will assist with fundraising.

7. Communication: There must be regularly scheduled, standing meetings between the state party and elected officials, county committees, candidates, and Democrats in the general public.

  • County committees must be urged to hold regularly scheduled, standing monthly meetings among precinct committeepersons.
  • The party chair must speak monthly with our Members of Congress, Indiana House Democratic Caucus, Senate Democrats, Mayors, County officials, City and Town Councils.

The Team

Data Director

  • Creates the precinct-by-precinct analysis to determine high priority races for 2022

VAN Administrator & Technology Director

  • Administers and maintains VAN, hosts trainings on VAN, MiniVAN, and Mobilize

Communications Director

  • Administers social media, reaches out to press, acts as an individual consultant to high priority campaigns campaigns that want assistance

Field Director

  • Directly works with high priority campaigns to develop field strategies, mobilize volunteers, create universes

Finance Director

  • Fundraising, compliance, budgeting

Voter Registration Director

  • Spearheading voter registration drives, needs to meet a quota, talking to stakeholder groups to coordinate

Many, many interns & volunteers

The Two Year Plan

  • Q2 2021 — Make staff hires; re-engage county committees and elected officials by setting up standing meeting times, heeding their suggestions for areas of improvement and critical races; fundraise (ongoing)
  • Q3/Q4 2021 — Complete precinct-by-precinct analysis and establish high/medium/low priority race designations; move office to more accessible location; commence recruitment of precinct committeepersons and candidates for elected office
  • Q1 2022 — Deadline to file to run for precinct committee and elected offices; aid incumbents in contested primaries and introduce voters to new candidates in uncontested primaries in preparation for the general election
  • Q2 2022 — Ongoing electoral efforts
  • Q3 2022 — Deadline to fill ballot vacancies; ongoing electoral efforts
  • Q4 2022 — General Election

Please also read Jason Critchlow’s clear-eyed take on the duties required of the next party chair: https://jasonmcritchlow.medium.com/required-reading-for-any-party-chair-candidate-bc80d23f8b84

Former Indiana House of Representatives; Board of Directors of Habitat for Humanity of NWI; Columbia BSIE 2016