By Michelle Railey
Recently, 2012 Indiana Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg sat down for an interview with Tim Swarens of the Indianapolis Star. In the interview, he conceded he was considering another run for the state’s executive office. He also called a portion of the Democratic electorate “left-wing whack-a-doodles.” What did the whack-a-doodles do, you ask, to be so comically denigrated yet seriously dismissed by a candidate who had nearly benefited from their votes? They suggested in the past campaign that his Small Town ads weren’t as great as other people, presumably Mr. Gregg for example, did.
As the Star article pointed out, initially in the 2012 race against Mike Pence, John Gregg had really poor name recognition among Hoosiers. So Gregg did two highly visible and highly effective things. One, he made his mustache his best friend: it was everywhere. It was simple and graphic and appealing. It was even vaguely hipsterish. Using a Star-Spangled-colored mustache as iconic shorthand for the candidate was genius: it separated Gregg from the clean-shaven Pence, it highlighted humor and approachability, and it became a race of the Mustache versus the GOP establishment. It could even be argued that Suzanne Crouch’s winning 2014 campaign (the Red Glasses) borrowed the idea from Gregg (or that Gregg’s staff had borrowed the idea from Mary Ann Sullivan’s Red Hair motif). Nevertheless, the success of the ‘stache still left the problem of Gregg’s low name-recognition and the need to give the population some idea of who the Mustache actually was. Hence, a series of ads highlighting Gregg as a Small Town Hoosier from the Very Small and Very Hoosier Town of Sandborn, Indiana, 400-ish residents strong. The ads featured lots of colloquialisms, a distinct Southern Indiana kick to its gallop, a charming life-long friend and neighbor, and copious numbers of hanging potted ferns on homey front porches. The ads made John Gregg seem like your favorite neighbor from your hometown, someone you wanted to drink iced tea with, maybe beat at horseshoes. Watching the ads was to feel a nostalgic kind of pride in being a Hoosier, even if you lived in the big city, you could identify with the common sense integrity of a small town sensibility. It was like eating a homemade slice of pie. And then getting to vote for it.
The ads built name recognition and Gregg came closer to winning the post of governor than anyone anticipated. But some people did suggest at the time that the ads were maybe too nostalgic, too backward, too much Andy Griffith and not enough Silicon Valley. If Indiana under a new governor was to fully participate in the twenty-first century, perhaps it wasn’t the best plan to pick a guy who had firmly stood by his hanging ferns in the summertime but hadn’t yet made a strong case on any of his policy positions. In any case, there were those who thought the Small Town ads had multiplied like rabbits and had come in packs when two would have sufficed to demonstrate Gregg’s affability and charm and then lead in to more serious discussions (i.e. a platform).
To John Gregg of late 2014, the people who held these views not only didn’t get it, they are “left-wing whack-a-doodles.” Now, it seems to me that it is not an especially partisan critique to point out that an ad campaign comprised mainly of multiple variations of “Gee Whillikers, I’m a Hoosier” smacks of redundancy. Pointing out that the small town charm was insufficient as a policy portfolio wasn’t and shouldn’t have been seen as a frothing Progressive electorate dismissing the State Fair and James Whitcomb Riley and basketball and everything holy in Hoosierville. Instead, it remains a question expressed by voters capable of critical thinking: Who are you, John Gregg? What do you believe in? Why are you a capable leader? What is your vision for Indiana? If we elect you from that storybook front porch, what will you do for the people of this state?
Still, Gregg has decided to plant his flag firmly in the I’m a Moderate camp. Fair enough, it has worked for Bayh and Donnelly. It has worked for every other Democrat who has managed to get elected here in the most recent decades. You never lose in Indiana by tracking center-right. You never lose in Indiana, as a Democrat, by disavowing your Democratic leanings. You can be a Democrat, but only if you say you’re really kind of not. So, it’s a sound strategic decision to make and, should Gregg run for governor again, being front porch and center should help him out.
Lucky for John Gregg, though, that his “left-wing whack-a-doodle” comment appeared in print. Demographically speaking, younger people skew Democrat (or Libertarian, depending). With the right media outlet and the right spin at the right time, the perceived insult to Democrats and actual left-skewing voters could have been damaging. But, demographically speaking, young people aren’t paying attention to the newspapers. The insult didn’t trend on Twitter and it wasn’t turned into a snarky click-bait piece by a politically minded Progressive.
Still, if I were assisting or staffing John Gregg, potential 2016 candidate, I would already be on damage control and I’d already be working on answers to the question of why, when there were only reasons of pandering and cheap politicking to do so, a candidate chose to diminish honest critique from a camp of easy votes. And I’d be working on polishing up the media savvy and presentation skills of a candidate who wasn’t able to escape getting booby trapped by his own mouth in a soft interview situation where there was neither scrutiny or real pressure.
Or I’d be scouting for some more small town cafes and picturesque front porches, I guess. Add corn, puppies, or kids, and you just can’t go wrong with those.