Indiana Democrats laid out a plan Saturday of reaching out to all voters regardless of party loyalty – a key strategy for outnumbered Allen County Democrats and one who worked for Mayor Tom Henry last year in his re-election bid.
Democrats from all corners of Indiana came to Fort Wayne for the state party's annual convention – the first ever held outside Indianapolis by either political party. For Democrats, the convention offered a chance to rally the party faithful in the GOP stronghold of northeast Indiana.
But one after another, speakers also tried selling their party as a group that values people of all political stripes, drawing a contrast with what they see as a divisive “my way or the highway” mentality among this year's Republican candidates. Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg urged his backers to reach out to independents and even moderate Republicans.
“Talk to Democrats. Talk to independents and talk to Republicans. Talk to Dick Lugar Republicans,” Gregg told about 1,500 delegates assembled in the Grand Wayne Center. “Tell them that we have room for them because we're the party of inclusion, the party of the big tent.”
Tea party-backed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock's defeat of moderate six-term Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary emboldened Democrats, who view Mourdock as an easier target for U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Granger. Gregg, meanwhile, faces socially conservative U.S. Rep. Mike Pence for the governor's office.
In Allen County, which leans heavily to the right, Democrats are asking teachers, labor union members and other working- and middle-class voters to bring independent friends to the polls in what they describe as a “plus-one” strategy.
“The Democratic Party always, but especially this year, is the party that welcomes everyone,” said former Fort Wayne City Councilwoman Karen Goldner, who has stumped for Gregg. “It's up to us to reach out to our friends and our family and our co-workers.”
It's an approach that paid off for Henry, helping him win a second term and keep the Fort Wayne mayor's office in Democratic control for the fourth straight term even as Republicans increased their majority on the council.
Voting data suggested Henry did a much better job than his opponent, Paula Hughes, at reaching across the political aisle to win independents and Republicans. After the convention Saturday, Henry said Democrats can win locally and statewide if they can drive turnout among voters who agree with their positions.
“We know there are a number of Democrats who have not been reached out to,” he said. “We're trying to reach out to anyone who believes it takes a village to get things done.”
At the same time, Democratic officials hoped moving this year's convention to Fort Wayne could drum up increased media coverage and rally party activists in a region where Democrats face an uphill climb almost every year.
Donnelly also hammered on the bipartisan theme when he took the stage, blasting Mourdock for trying to block the Chrysler bankruptcy, a move the Democrat said would have cost hundreds of Kokomo auto workers their jobs.
“I have an opponent who thinks this is about extreme partisan politics. That that's how you win,” Donnelly said. “I believe you win with good Hoosier common sense.”
He also ridiculed Mourdock for his alleged views that Medicare and Social Security are unconstitutional programs.
Delegates saved their wildest applause for state Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, their party's nominee for lieutenant governor. A huge delegation from Monroe County marched to the front of the room, carrying signs and chanting Simpson's name, when she took the stage.
Goldner pointed to the gubernatorial ticket as proof that Democrats are the party of compromise. Gregg is pro-life and generally seen as fiscally conservative, while Simpson is one of the General Assembly's greatest champions of liberal values. Yet even Simpson toed the bipartisan line.
“We don't care what party you claim. I want you to know there's a place in this administration for you…because Indiana needs you,” Simpson said of a possible Gregg administration.