Democrat Andy Ruff set out with plans to flip Indiana’s 9th Congressional District in the 2020 election. After months of traveling across southern Indiana, Ruff said he knew on Election Day the results were inevitable.
“You could make a strong impression on someone,” Ruff said. “But if you had a ‘D’ by your name, you were just excluded immediately from being a possibility.”
Ruff lost to two-term incumbent Republican Trey Hollingsworth by 28 points, keeping with southern Indiana’s rightward trend. In the state legislature, every state Senate seat in southern Indiana is held by a Republican outside of Bloomington. All three southern Indiana congressional seats have been held by Republicans since 2011. In Indiana’s rolling hills, 9th District Democrats such as Baron Hill and his predecessor, Lee Hamilton, are long gone.
The results have left Hoosier Democrats in the 9th District puzzled about the past, sorting through the present and uncertain about the future.
Todd Lare remembers Baron Hill’s walks. Hill was the last Democrat to represent Indiana’s 9th District. Lare considered himself “the eyes and ears of the district” as deputy district director during a portion of Hill’s terms.
Hill, a native of Seymour, Indiana, in the 9th District, served in Congress from 1999-2005 and again from 2007-2011. As a representative, Hill walked through the district every summer. Residents would often join Hill on his walks along the 9th District backroads for one-on-one conversation on the issues affecting their families.
“He knew how to represent them because he was them,” Lare said.
But familiarity did not save Hill. He was voted out for the second and final time in 2010. Throughout Hill’s time in office, Lare saw changing politics in the region. Most notably, Lare said he believes many conservatives moved out of the Louisville metro area in Kentucky and across the Ohio River into Indiana’s Floyd and Clark counties.
And after Hill left office, the 9th District’s map changed. In 2011, with Republicans in control of the Indiana Statehouse, the congressional map was redrawn.
“Every ten years we have an opportunity, and for the last several of those opportunities, the Democrats have had little say on redistricting,” Lare said. “If we could get more districts favorable or equally split, perhaps, we would have a better shot at winning back some of the congressional seats.”
After the 2011 redistricting, Democratic candidates have not been within 10 points of Republicans in the 9th District. The congressional district and state legislative district maps will be redrawn this year ahead of the 2022 election based on the 2020 census.
Republicans hold a two-thirds supermajority in both the Indiana House and Senate, allowing the party to pass legislation without any Democrats present. Indiana is one of 26 states in the U.S. where the state legislature draws both the congressional and state legislative maps without needing bipartisan support.
Democrats have been hurt by the current map of Indiana congressional districts that favors Republicans, a practice known as ‘gerrymandering.’ In the 2020 election, 40.7% of Hoosiers voted for a Democrat in their U.S. congressional race. With Republicans holding seven of nine seats, only 22.2% of the Indiana population is represented by a Democrat.
The Indiana state legislature drew the current congressional maps in 2011. Democrats will need to improve their standing in state legislature races by 2030 to have a meaningful say in drawing maps.
Five bills related to a more fair and transparent redistricting process were proposed in the Indiana Statehouse in 2020. None of the bills advanced to the state House or Senate floor.
Democrats can continue to advocate for changes to the redistricting process in the future, but with a current dark red Statehouse, Republicans have full control this year to draw the congressional and state legislative maps, which will be in effect for the next 10 years.
John Zody has spent 23 years in Indiana politics. The Bloomington resident remembers starting his political career when south of Interstate 70 in Indiana meant Democrat country.
In Zody’s eight years as Indiana Democratic Party chair, he focused on reversing the increasingly red trend across the state, especially in rural regions such as southern Indiana.
“In rural areas we are having a tough time,” Zody said. “We need to keep working on how to reach out to rural voters about the issues that are important to them.”
In the 2020 election, Ruff lost badly in the rural counties of the 9th District. Ruff won only 21% of the vote in Lawrence and Jackson counties and 19% in Morgan County.
Republicans trace this rural dominance in southern Indiana to recent economic success for the state and a national Democratic party shifting to the left.
“If you just look at the last week and the executive orders coming from new President Biden, those aren’t going to resonate with southern Indiana,” Indiana Republican Party Chair Kyle Hupfer said, mentioning the stoppage of the Keystone XL pipeline and the rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement as examples.
Republicans have controlled the state Senate, House and governorship since 2011. Hupfer believes this has allowed Republicans to establish a brand while Democrats are unable to dictate any policy.
Ruff points to Democrat’s problems in rural areas as consequences of a lack of local and reliable media.
“What I didn’t realize was how deeply the negative talk radio and Fox News type of media had sunk into so many people’s minds,” Ruff said. “I don’t think people are politically that different in their policy priorities then when Baron represented the district. It’s this cultivated dislike, hatred, identity allegiance that has been created.”
Ruff said he believes the current media and political environment creates polarization of political parties.
“I could talk to people and get all kinds of agreement of issues on my platform,” Ruff said. “But they wouldn’t consider voting for me.”
Zody’s second term as Democratic chair ends in March. He will be stepping down, but he’s not giving up on rural voters.
His playbook starts with avoiding hot button social issues and instead reaching out to voters on kitchen table problems, he said.
“You got to look at those issues that are everyday in front of people as they get up and try to go to work,” Zody said. “Where is health care losing? About a third of our hospitals don’t have access to OB-GYN and prenatal services. A lot of those are in rural areas.”
Through shifting politics, gerrymandering and greater political polarization, Republicans slowly seized control of southern Indiana and the 9th District. Lare and Zody said they agree Democrats gaining a foothold and even winning back the 9th District is not impossible, but it will be a tedious process.
“We need to listen more than talk,” Lare said “And not just show up on people’s doors every two years.”
That effort has seemingly worked for the Indiana Republican Party.
“We have election cycle after election cycle, continue to grow the grassroots support of Indiana Republicans across the state,” Hupfer said. “We’ve continued to add volunteers, we’ve continued to add communication mechanisms to our supporters.”
Zody said he hopes that Donald Trump no longer being president will help localize state races instead of making them a referendum on national parties. Democrats’ recent success in municipal races across Indiana gives Zody faith they can turn the tide in state races, he said.
“When we see a decline in local journalism and the outlets that are available, people might turn to national news,” Zody said. “We need to make sure that we are communicating every way we think we should and can.”
Democrats such as Lare and Zody believe a return to local old-fashioned politics in the spirit of Baron Hill can make a difference in southern Indiana.
“It’s going to take incremental years of work to rebuild and to also rebuild the trust that has been lost in particularly rural areas of the southern district,” Lare said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight.”