Controversial campaign urges Democrats to vote in Republican primary instead of their own

    • Billboards erected around the state by ReCenter Indiana are urging Democrats to vote in the Republican primary in an attempt to advance more centrist candidates.

      If you have driven down I-465 recently, you may have seen a billboard by ReCenter Indiana saying, “Even Democrats can vote in the Republican primary” on Tuesday.

      This is part of a controversial campaign that comes from some Democrats being dissatisfied with not having an elected governor for over 20 years and feeling like their votes don’t matter in a supermajority Republican state.

      ReCenter Indiana is “two separate bipartisan organizations to help move Indiana politics closer to the center and to bring more civility to political discussions,” according to its website. “One organization is an Indiana political action committee (PAC), and the other organization is an Indiana not-for-profit corporation.”

      According to a ReCenterR Indiana press release, billboards are currently posted:

      • In Indianapolis, on I-465 just west of the White River bridge between North Keystone Avenue and Allisonville Road.

      • In Fort Wayne, at 9212 Lima Road (State Road 3).

      • In Bloomington, on the State Road 45/46 Bypass just west of North Kinser Pike.

      • In Evansville, on North Green River Road just north of State Road 66.

      • In Merrillville, on Broadway just north of U.S. 30 as well as east of I-65.

      A South Bend billboard also is coming to South Bend Avenue at Napoleon Street.

      Phil Bremen, an associate professor emeritus at Ball State University and a member of the political action committee board, said, “The members of the organization are funding it, and we’ve had some outside support. Some people around the state … They like our message and they’re helping us.”

      Bremen explained how a voter can select a candidate in a different party’s primary:

      “In Indiana, the only registration is as a voter, and that means that in the primary, you can ask for whichever ballot you want. You can ask for a Republican or Democratic or libertarian, and the election official is supposed to give it to you,” Bremen said.

      “And because Indiana has an open primary, it’s a chance for people who are not Republicans to influence who is likely to be the next governor because this state has not elected a Democrat for governor in 24 years.”

      The last elected Democratic governor was Joseph E. Kernan (2003-2005). There are six Republicans in the primary race for governor in Indiana this year: U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, Brad Chambers, Eric Doden, Curtis Hill and Jamie Reitenour. On the other hand, the Democratic party has already chosen Jennifer McCormick as the Democratic nominee.

      “A few other states have variations of open primaries. It’s just not something that gets discussed much, and it’s the whole process that is kind of confusing,” said Bremen. “And so a lot of people can certainly be forgiven for not knowing.”

      Campaign controversy

      There is controversy on both sides, with some Democrats as well as Republicans opposed to the ReCenter campaign.

      Griffin Reid, a press secretary and digital director for the Indiana Republican Party, said, “It is unfortunate that Democrats in Indiana can’t win elections on the merit of their own policies so they have to resort to antics like this. This is a reminder that Republicans should come out to vote in this year’s primary to ensure their voices are heard as we elect our party’s nominees.”

      Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, is a ReCenter Indiana advisor but was not directly involved in the billboard outreach.

      “I’m one of the people who give them advice from time to time,” he said. “I’m not a part of the organization, and I’ve specifically advised that this was a bad idea. I’m just conversing with people who want to improve politics. …

      “I’m not angry at them, but I just remember they’re a new group. They’re amateurs politically,” Delaney said. “They’re troubled rightly by the lopsided representation that gerrymandering has led to, and so they’re trying and, you know, they represent a very interesting nucleus. They’re most interesting people. They represent our people who are what I call traditional Republicans who believe in our institutions, believe in democracy, believe in honesty, are very, very troubled and don’t know where to go.”

      Indiana Democratic Party Chair Mike Schmuhl spoke on why he thinks Democrats should vote in their own primary.

      “Twenty years of one-party Republican administration has our state going in the wrong direction, and we badly need more balance again in Indiana’s politics. All six of the Republican candidates for governor are for Indiana’s near-total abortion ban and against restoring a women’s right to choose.

      “Our party endorsed Jennifer McCormick because she’s committed to restoring women’s rights and supporting our local schools. Jennifer is the only choice to get our state on the right track, both this May and in November.”

      Indiana Democratic spokesperson Sam Barloga followed up:

      “We believe Democrats have great candidates to support across the state and up and down the ballot this May, including Jennifer McCormick in the governor’s race. These candidates deserve support in the primary to help them gain momentum heading into the summer,” he said.

      “Indiana won’t achieve balance again in our politics until we end one-party control, and by supporting Democratic candidates in the primary election, we can send that message.”

      Jocelyn Vare, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said she alsoopposes the message ReCenter Indiana has been advertising and recommends Democrats to vote their values.

      “Democratic voters voting according to their values and voting consistently and strongly as the Democrats that they are, that helps Democratic candidates get elected and therefore helps Democratic values be represented in an elected capacity,” Vare said. “We and voters who want their voices heard and their values to be represented need to consistently vote for those candidates that will commit to do so.”

      Vare thinks Hamilton County has a unique opportunity this election.

      “Hamilton County, Indiana, is a county in the state that has the best opportunity of achieving political balance very soon,” she said. “Hamilton County has always been considered a GOP stronghold, and over the last few years, we are seeing a red county transition to purple. …

      “I find that political balance to be healthy and the best way that citizens are represented. So, this is especially important for Hamilton County voters to vote according to their values, and that means Democratic voters choosing a Democratic ballot in this primary election.”

      Uncompetitive races 

      Michael Wolf, acting director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said the ReCenter concept is not new.

      “There’s two different kinds [of crossover voting],” he said. “I mean, there are potentially so many examples; one is called raiding, where some Democrats in this case would jump into the Republican primary to support potentially the weakest or the most extreme candidate. They would have a hard time getting elected in the general election. And the second kind is more strategic, and that’s where maybe Democrats would cross over to support somebody, as the ReCenter is pushing for a more moderate candidate. …

      “As I know it, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that it tends to end up working, particularly in a state like Indiana, which has what’s referred to as a semi-open primary.”

      He reiterated: “The literature largely shows that there’s not usually a huge effect of this. So, it typically doesn’t end up making a difference in the race.”

      Julia Vaughn, executive director for Common Cause Indiana, thinks that most Hoosiers are independent and don’t really feel a strong allegiance to either party.

      “What I’m most concerned about is people voting and, you know, sometimes because of gerrymandering, there can be not a lot of choices for people. So I think, you know, people should follow their interests and what issues they think are important,” Vaughn said. “And the really underlying most important thing is that people participate in the primary election because, again, turnout is typically very, very low, much less than 50%.

      “When you only have about a quarter of the people participating, your impact is going to be much bigger, you know, so, whichever ballot you choose, it’s just really important for voters to get out and participate on May 7.”

      Bremen of ReCenter said gerrymandering in Indiana dilutes Democratic votes by carving up city districts and combining them with rural districts to give Republicans an advantage. This makes many races uncompetitive, which can discourage voter participation. It also means that the most extreme Republican candidates are more likely to win elections, he said, which contributes to some voters feeling unrepresented. Overall, he continued, gerrymandering makes it harder for Democrats to win elections in Indiana and can reduce voter participation over time.

      “That’s why there often are uncompetitive races,” he said. “That’s why, for instance, there are a lot more Republicans challenging each other for the chance to get elected in November—because they know whoever wins the Republican primary is likely to win in November.”

      Indiana’s low voter participation numbers last November placed it 50th among all states.

      “A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that people just don’t think their votes count or there’s nobody on the ballot they cared about,” Bremen said.

      “We’re trying to do something about that because when few people take part, the system doesn’t work. When few people take part, a small minority gets to call the shots for all the rest of us and gets to make policies for all the rest of us. And chances are, because they are nominated by the extremes, the most, the most partisan members of their parties—typically, it’s the Republican Party in Indiana—they’re not going to like what turns out.

      “The thing about the governor in particular, the governor is supposed to represent all of us, even people who didn’t vote for him or her, but it’s very tempting to ignore the folks who didn’t even bother to vote at all. The way to make your vote count is to vote in the primary of the party that’s likely to win in November.”