What if an election takes place and nearly no one shows up? Hoosiers found out this week: the voices of a handful prevail.
Yes, it was a primary election and, yes, some voters don’t like to declare themselves Republicans or Democrats. Never mind that the candidates can come from different ends of the political spectrum within the same party and that primary elections might as well be the general election where one party dominates.
A dismal turnout – 12 percent in Allen County, 8 percent in Marion County and 6 percent in Vanderburgh County – gives disproportionate power to two groups. There are the energized and hard-working candidates who legitimately use the process to rally support. There are also those with the financial resources to run skillfully targeted campaigns. The latter employ political strategists to advise them on the best message and medium for reaching likely voters.
It’s all legal, but it should bring new scrutiny of the source of the financial resources. Indiana campaign finance laws are lax, allowing millions in corporate-backed donations to flow directly or indirectly to candidates, some of whom will face only a nominal challenge in the fall.
Consider Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne. Two years ago he embarrassed his constituents and the entire General Assembly with an attack on the Girl Scouts. Even House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, poked fun at Morris, gleefully distributing Girl Scout cookies at the Statehouse.
The attention Morris drew rightly focused on his lackluster legislative performance. He won re-election without an intra-party challenge two years ago because the incident happened after the filing period for the GOP primary. His Democratic challenger was a strong one, but the Republican-drawn districts were designed to protect the incumbent.
This year, Morris had a worthy GOP challenger in Michael Barranda, but the challenger was at a distinct disadvantage when it came to spending. Less than two weeks before the election, Morris collected $45,000 in contributions, including $10,000 from the political action committee of the state’s apartment owners. The House Republican Campaign Committee, with coffers filled by multiple political action groups and trade associations, donated $14,000. Non-union contractors gave Morris $5,000.
Bosma, who had mocked his freshman legislator two years earlier, gave $12,255 of his own campaign funds to the Morris campaign for polling.
The effect, of course, was a victory for the incumbent. The support from the speaker and from special interest groups undoubtedly will serve their intended purposes in the next two terms.
The money, of course, doesn’t always ensure a win.
Voters motivated by anger or by a particular issue can make a difference, and they did on Tuesday. Nowhere is that more evident than in House District 22, where Rep. Rebecca Kubacki was defeated by challenger Curt Nisly. Kubacki was among the handful of Republicans who voted against House Joint Resolution 3, the measure to write a ban on same-sex marriage into the state Constitution.
The Freedom Indiana crowds that filled the Statehouse for noisy demonstrations against the resolution in January and February were nowhere to be found when it came to supporting Kubacki and the other candidates who crossed their own leaders in voting against HJR 3.
If one lesson can come from Tuesday’s primary, it’s the fact that if most of the electorate is silent, a small group of people and financial backers can and will step up to determine the outcome.