Democrats took a beating on election night this year but were largely spared on the local level thanks to strong campaigns backed with an impressive get-out-the-vote effort in St. Joseph County.
Last night we profiled St. Joseph County Democratic Party chairman Jason Critchlow, who led the party’s local efforts. We sat down with Critchlow to reflect on the 2014 cycle and look ahead to 2015/16.
“I think we lost the conversation at the national level,” Critchlow says of 2014, reflecting on the party’s losses in Indiana and nationwide.
“People weren’t talking about the successes that we’ve seen. People weren’t talking about the economy recovering. We’ve had millions of jobs created over the past six years. We’re losing the conversation.”
The conversation begins with bread-and-butter issues that matter to average voters.
“We need to start talking about the successes that Democrats are having in office right now and why their leadership can start bringing that back to their local communities and in the statehouse.”
A big part of the party’s strategy going forward will be starting a dialogue with voters who may have turned away from Democrats in recent elections.
The 2015 municipal elections offer the first opportunity to do just that. The local races for 2015 have already gotten underway with a slew of announcements from candidates for offices ranging from the South Bend Common Council to city clerk and mayor.
Democrats are looking to go on offense.
The party is hoping to regain control of lost Mishawaka city council seats, where they currently hold a 5-4 majority. Republicans gained two seats in the 2011 elections. Democrats also hopes to recruit a serious candidate for Mishawaka mayor against incumbent Dave Wood.
South Bend is a different story.
Democrats already control 8 of 9 seats on the Common Council, the mayor’s office, and city clerk. While it is unlikely that there will be competitive general election challenges from Republicans, the local party will be looking at avoiding ugly primaries and managing intra-party conflicts in South Bend.
“The ’15 elections are going to be rough,” Critchlow says, referring to party primaries. “It’s hard when we’re coming right out of this team spirit that we had coming out of the  general election and then we’re jumping into a primary coming up in May when we all start to eat each other. I think preventing that as much as possible is going to be one of my priorities.”
Critchlow says that he will approach the party’s primary with a “fair and even hand” even if it means a qualified candidate is challenging an incumbent.
And even though it is still over a year away, 2016 is shaping up to be “a near purely offensive year for the local party” as Critchlow puts it.
“It’s going to be a completely different year [than 2014].”
The main goal for Democrats locally will be regaining control of the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners.
Deb Fleming, the former St. Joseph County Republican Party Chairwoman who recently filled the seat of Marsha McClure, will face voters for the first time as a commissioner in 2016.
The local party will also play a big part in get-out-the-vote operations for top of the ticket races that could be decided by the turnout in St. Joseph County.
On the state level, Democrats will attempt to claw their way back to relevance in the state legislature — where Republicans currently hold a super majority — and mount a serious challenge to Governor Mike Pence.
A rematch between Congresswoman Jackie Walorski and Joe Bock is also a distinct possibility.
“We’re going to have to start driving the conversation now in order to ensure that that turnout is there in 2016,” Critchlow says of the race for the 2nd Congressional District. “St. Joseph County is essential for the 2nd District.”