A decade ago Indiana was a battleground for control of Congress. Between 2004 and 2010, there were six U.S. House seats that flipped. We weren't "flyover country" when it came to Capitol Hill. Indiana was often ground zero.
The flipping began in 2004 when Republican trucking executive Mike Sodrel upset Democratic U.S. Rep. Baron HIll 49.4 to 49 percent. Two years later, with the Iraq War dissolving into an insurgency that would claim more than 5,000 American lives and more than 100 Hoosier soldiers, Hill returned with a 50-45 percent victory in a rematch, while Democrats Brad Ellsworth and Joe Donnelly upset U.S. Reps. John Hostettler and Chris Chocola, the latter by a 53-46 percent margin.
In 2010, two more seats changed parties, with Republican Todd Young upsetting Hill 52-42 percent. Dr. Larry Bucshon won the 8th CD by defeating State Rep. Trent Van Haaften 57-37 percent in a seat Democrat Rep. Ellsworth abandoned to replace Sen. Evan Bayh after he stunned the political world with his retirement.
Compare that to this year's mid-term elections, where the website FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats at 74 percent chance of retaking the U.S. House, but in Indiana's nine districts, well, there's hardly a race to be found. Reps. Pete Visclosky, Jim Banks, Susan Brooks, Andre Carson and Larry Bucshon all had a 99 percent chance of winning and so do new nominees Jim Baird and Greg Pence.
The analytical site's data gives Democrat Mel Hall just an 8 percent chance of upsetting U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski in the 2nd CD, while Liz Watson in the 9th CD has just a 23 percent chance of upsetting freshman Rep. Trey Hollingsworth.
With all the incumbents — two Democrats and seven Republicans — all virtually a cinch for reelection, it's because we all think they deserve it, right? Not so fast, Bucko. Last week's NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll puts congressional approval at 20 percent with 75 percent disapproving, while on Wednesday an Economist/YouGov Poll put congressional approval at 14 percent with 67 percent disapproving.
How did this disconnect happen?
Look no further than the reapportioned maps of 2011. Heading into that once-a-decade exercise, then-Secretary of State Todd Rokita pushed for basic guidelines: Build districts based on "communities of interest," county lines and nesting two Indiana House districts in each Indiana Senate district.
It all sounded good, but it was really a Trojan horse. Once the Republican consultants in Washington and their computers emerged with the finished product, what we ended up with were two hard-core Democratic districts (the 1st and 7th) in Lake County and Indianapolis, and seven overwhelmingly Republican districts spread out across the state. The maps were boxy, unlike the maps forged in 2001 that featured the "Kokomo strand" that connected the City of Firsts with the 2nd CD, while Bloomington and Lafayette were in what I described as the "Frankenstein 4th."
The Cook Partisan Index reveals just how uncompetitive these districts are: Only two, the Democratic 1st and the Republican 5th are in single digits, at +9 for those parties. And the rest? The 2nd is R+11, the 3rd is R+18, the 4th is R+17, the 6th is R+18, the not-so-bloody 8th is R+15, and the 9th is R+13.
In 2016, Gov. Eric Holcomb won with 51 percent of the vote, Sen. Todd Young with 52 percent and President Trump won 57 percent, but the Indiana House went 70 percent Republican, the Indiana Senate was 82 percent Republican and the Indiana congressional delegation was 78 percent Republican.
To further make the point, the last two U.S. Senate races were competitive and this year's showdown between Sen. Donnelly and Repubican Mike Braun is a true 50/50 tossup at this point.
So while most of us agree that Congress really, really sucks, our whole delegation sleeps soundly at night. Rep. Hollingsworth and Greg Pence barely talk to the press and won't debate their opponents. Only a few, like Reps. Jim Banks, Pete Visclosky and Larry Bucshon, are holding town hall meetings.
Below the congressional level, the Indiana General Assembly maps have yielded Republican super majorities since 2014. As I wrote in the April 7, 2011, edition of Howey Politics Indiana, "Canny House Republicans can get maps for the next decade that will be fertile ground for future majorities just by playing the demographics straight and following the Rokita doctrine that has been embraced by the governor."
While Democrats are calling for a non-partisan redistricting commission that they believe will design more competitive districts, that referenced governor — now Purdue President Mitch Daniels — who signed the 2011 maps into law, understands the threat.
In his 2017 Ian Rolland lecture in Fort Wayne, Daniels observed, "You could draw the fairest, squarest, most geographically compact lines around the so-called common communities of interest, just the way the law contemplates, and you would still get a one-sided outcome, because our population has concentrated in this novel way. You would almost need reverse gerrymandering. You'd almost have to draw salamander-like districts in order to throw, let's say, Democrats and Republicans together in some even mix."
Hmmmm, battle gerrymandering with salamandering. It's a concept a slithery, low-yielding Congress will resist.
Prepare for your landslides and inertia.
Brian A. Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.