INDIANAPOLIS – The old axiom of politics making “strange bedfellows” may prove to be the only consistent thread through Indiana’s otherwise lackluster 2014 primary elections.
It was hard to find a single theme that dominated last week’s primary. In one corner of the state, social conservatives batted two for three, knocking out a pair of incumbents who opposed them on gay marriage and Common Core education standards. But a third incumbent Republican survived his challenge and a moderate, business-backed Republican came within inches of knocking out an incumbent conservative.
At the other end of the state, in southwest Indiana, Sen. John Waterman, R-Shelburn, became the only incumbent senator turned out of office when Washington City Councilman Eric Bassler beat him by 359 votes.
The success of each challenger who knocked out an incumbent was built in part on knitting together otherwise opposing interests. Business groups and the tea party-aligned Americans for Prosperity united behind Bassler to overcome the other Senate Republicans, Indiana manufacturers and the National Rifle Association, who supported Waterman.
Republican strategist Pete Seat said the pairings may seem odd on the surface but are the work of an essential element of politics: coalition building.
“They were still building coalitions in order to achieve victory,” Seat said. “You know, building coalitions is a part of organizational skill and the strength of an organization. You need to find sometimes disparate groups and individuals and bring them all together for a common goal.”
The case in point is most likely the race between Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-Syracuse, and Curt Nisly, a Goshen Republican. Nisly won the backing of tea partyers – who are strong in northeast Indiana – angry over Kubacki’s votes against a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and her support for national Common Core education standards. But Nisly also gathered $15,000 from the Lunchpail Republicans – a union group that targeted Republicans who voted in favor 2012’s right-to-work law banning the collection of certain union fees.
Nisly also benefited from connections from his wife, chairwoman of the Elkhart County Republicans, who helped rally support from establishment Republicans.
Surprising alliances are hardly new in Indiana politics.
In 2012, Democrats and tea partyers hammered away at then-U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar on questions about his residence and qualifications to vote in Indiana. The pairing helped deliver a stunning victory for Treasurer Richard Mourdock, and the immediate end to the marriage of convenience between the political left and right.
Later that year, tea partyers, teachers and suburban Republicans joined with Democrats to vote Republican Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett out of office.
Following Tuesday’s primary, many groups try to take credit for the upsets. Gay marriage opponents quickly dubbed the 2014 election a referendum on the General Assembly’s decision not to place a marriage ban before voters in November.
“Yesterday’s primary election was as close to an across-the-board sweep as you will ever see in politics,” wrote Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, in an email to supporters sent the day after the elections. “Republican voters finally got their chance in a few state legislative districts to express their anger over the failure of the GOP-dominated statehouse to pass a marriage protection amendment.”
But it’s unlikely gay marriage opponents would have had as much success without assists from Common Core opponents and financial backing from the Lunchpail Republicans.