Indiana voters like their change slowly, thanks

Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS  — What do President Barack Obama, Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett and State Treasurer Richard Mourdock have in common, aside from losing Indiana voters this year after winning them over on previous ballots?

They all represented break-neck change, and Indiana voters said “No, thank you.”

In the case of Obama and Bennett, voters gave them a shot four years ago, but rejected them this year. In Mourdock’s case, voters heard his comments that pregnancy resulting from rape was something “God intended” and opted for the candidate who literally positioned himself in the middle of the road in his campaign commercials.

A quick reading of the 2012 election results might give the impression Hoosiers are chaotic and prone to fits of ticket-splitting. Who else would give Democrat Joe Donnelly a six-year ticket to Washington while giving Republicans a super-majority in the Indiana House of Representative for the first time in four decades?

But even in those two cases the similarities were campaigns built on pragmatic conservatism, not tea party and evangelical ideology. Donnelly did everything he could to wrap himself in the image of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar while painting Mourdock as a tea party extremist. The House Republicans’ unified campaign recruited business owners and presented them as fiscal hawks while painting Democrats as extremists for their five-week walkout in 2011.

Ironically, it’s Indiana’s biggest change-agent, Gov. Mitch Daniels, who shows how residents handle sweeping changes, said Republican pollster Christine Matthews. Matthews worked on the Howey/DePauw Battleground poll released just days before the election that showed Mourdock in serious danger of losing and Democratic schools superintendent candidate Glenda Ritz, an unheralded underdog, within striking distance of Bennett.

Early in Daniels’ first term, when he put Indiana on daylight saving time and leased the Indiana Toll Road, his popularity tanked, said Matthews, who has polled for Daniels for the last eight years. Going into his 2008 re-election bid, some of his staff were nervous he may have done too much, but voters warmed to him and gave Daniels a second term.

“After the adjustment period his approval rating soared back up,” Matthews said. “There is a bit of a change-averse mentality in Indiana. One of the things that helps explain it is we’re very traditional, we have a traditional outlook and we don’t like extremism.”

“Quick change makes Hoosiers nervous,” she added.

In Bennett’s case, his sweeping education changes were signed off on by lawmakers in the last two-year stretch of his term and he rolled out one of his most controversial changes — a new A-F school assessment model — days before the election. In Mourdock’s case, his rape comments came with just two weeks left in the election, hardly enough time to recover.

Even though Bennett collected six times as much money as Ritz, much of it from private education groups doing business with the state, he lost by roughly 6 percentage points.

“As I travelled across this state, it was clear the voters don’t want their tax dollars going to the privatization of their schools. And they don’t want their teaching and learning environments to be about teaching to the test, resulting in grading of our schools with a flawed A-F grading model,” Ritz said in her acceptance speech.

That might sound like a new direction, coming from a statewide official after years of talk about teacher merit pay, school vouchers and increased options, but it reflects a return to the old way, the status quo.

The extremism concerns could even be seen in the governor’s race.

Gov.-elect Mike Pence ran ahead by double digits in most public polling in a campaign where he presented himself as Mitch Daniels version 2.0. But Mourdock’s comments injected social issues into the governor’s race in a way Democrat John Gregg never could.

When voters caught a glimpse of Pence’s tea party background in Washington through heavy spending from Indiana unions, the congressman’s lead slipped dramatically.

On Election Day, Pence collected 49.6 percent of the vote, making him the first governor in nearly a century to win the office without winning a majority of voters.

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