This is the third installment in “Battle Tested,” a series analyzing early campaigns of some Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination. Earlier pieces focused on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign for a New York seat in the House in 2006 and Sen. Cory Booker’s 2002 bid for mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
A decade before he seemingly came out of nowhere at age 37 to become a top-tier candidate in the crowded race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Pete Buttigieg stood at a podium in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and told state party leaders he was not going to wait his turn.
“The time for patience is over, and the time for change is now,” he said. “I stand before you now, an impatient young man. Full of ideas and ready for action.”
It was 2010, and Buttigieg, a 27-year-old who looked even younger, had just quit his well-paying consulting job at the prestigious McKinsey & Company to throw himself into the race for Indiana treasurer.
It was a job he had little chance of getting. A Democrat hadn’t held that post since 1979 — three years before Buttigieg was born.
Undeterred, Buttigieg spent more than a year visiting county fairs, parades and diners through areas that rarely saw statewide candidates.
He still lost in spectacular fashion: Republican incumbent Richard Mourdock, a rising star in the tea party movement, beat him 62 percent to 38 percent, taking more votes than any statewide candidate on the ballot that year.
The loss undercuts Buttigieg’s argument that he deserves the Democratic presidential nomination because he can appeal to red-state voters.
It was his only statewide campaign. His two electoral victories that followed, for his current job of mayor of South Bend, were in one of the Hoosier State’s few Democratic enclaves. His highest vote total in a successful election, in 2011, was 10,991.
“One of the things that Buttigieg and his supporters have kind of thrown out there is, ‘Oh, you know, he knows how to win [in] a red state,’” said Pete Seat, executive director of strategic communications for the Indiana Republican Party. “Well, he doesn’t. He knows how to win in a blue city in a red state.”
Simplifying complex ideas
Yet Buttigieg’s 2010 campaign played to strengths, including an ability to talk simply about complex ideas and revel in the grind of retail politics, that have propelled his improbable rise in the polls against better-known Democratic contenders.
A Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar and intelligence officer in the United States Navy Reserve, Buttigieg declined to talk to CQ Roll Call for this story. His memoir, however, called the race for treasurer “a tough but priceless yearlong political crash course.”
Though he lost, it helped him build a base of support among Democratic establishment figures who would help him beat four other Democrats in the South Bend mayoral race the following year.
Backers told CQ Roll Call he impressed them with his discipline, intellect and sense of purpose, even though the odds were stacked against him.
“It shows his commitment,” said Kathi Schronce, the chairwoman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party at the time. “It was charging hell with a water pistol, and he kept reloading and going on.”
Buttigieg’s book describes a mixture of wonkishness and idealism that drove him to run for treasurer, similar to what he now says drives his run for president.
“No one sits on his mother’s knee and says he hopes one day to become a state treasurer,” he wrote. “The truth is that I made it through my schooling and early adulthood without ever noticing the office existed.”
Motivated by auto bailout
Buttigieg was spurred to run by Mourdock’s attempt to use the treasurer’s office to try to block a key part of the auto industry bailout with a lawsuit contending that state pension investments were hurt by the federally backed bankruptcy of Chrysler.
The gambit earned Mourdock national plaudits from opponents of government intervention, but Buttigieg thought he was putting his political profile ahead of the state’s economy and citizens’ livelihoods.
Buttigieg sought advice from Jeff Harris, a veteran political aide, who encouraged him to challenge Mourdock.
“Indiana Democrats struggle to find candidates,” Harris told CQ Roll Call. “Generally, they prop a warm body up the weekend before the convention. So it’s unusual to have somebody who actually wants to seek the office.”
The two had met in 2008, when Buttigieg’s talent for distilling complicated policy points earned him the reputation as the “nerd” in former Democratic Rep. Jill Long Thompson’s ill-fated campaign for governor. Harris believed that intellect would endear Buttigieg to party leaders if they got to know him.
“The more people would meet Pete, the more support he would get, and he would be going places,” Harris said.
The political climate in Indiana in 2010 was complicated. Voters were still sore about a reassessment that resulted in rising property taxes in 2007 and cost a Democratic mayor in Indianapolis his job, foretelling the rise of the tea party in the state, said Andy Downs, a political scientist at Purdue University in Fort Wayne.
In 2008, Barack Obama had become the first Democratic presidential nominee since 1964 to win Indiana, prompting some Democrats to think their luck had shifted. By 2010, however, a statewide poll found 71 percent of likely voters thought the country was headed in the wrong direction and 39 percent identified with the tea party. Buttigieg’s decision to run anyway shows he was thinking long-term, Downs said.
“In Pete Buttigieg, we see somebody who thinks strategically, who looks at opportunities and looks [at] not one election down the road but multiple elections down the road, or multiple years down the road,” he said.
Harris signed on as Buttigieg’s campaign manager, and they enlisted as campaign chairman Greg Goodnight, the mayor of Kokomo, a city where Chrysler was a key employer.
Learn from losing
Goodnight, who had run for Congress and lost, remembers giving Buttigieg some advice.
“Winning things, that’s not where you learn the most,” he said. “It’s losing that you learn your shortcomings, your challenges, who you can count on, who you can’t count on.”
Their headquarters was in the basement of a union meeting hall, giving the campaign a lifeline to a key constituency.
In addition to the Chrysler lawsuit, Buttigieg campaigned on providing low-interest loans to businesses that committed to creating or retaining jobs. He also called for more transparency in state investments and pledged not to take contributions from banks that did business with the state.
Along with traveling the state to meet party leaders, Buttigieg and Harris made sure to check in with key influencers every four to six weeks.
“One of our selling points was that … he may not be successful for this office, but you’re investing in something, somebody who’s going to do big things in the future,” Harris said.
They also made sure to visit every small newspaper and radio station in the state, giving the impression that they were everywhere. Buttigieg drew on the same strategy in the early days of his presidential race, when he gave interviews to anyone who asked.
He faced resistance. No one had ever heard of Buttigieg, and they couldn’t say his name, Harris recalled. Fundraising calls were further complicated by the need to explain what the treasurer actually does — managing state investments and pension funds.
Connecting with rural voters
Buttigieg peeled away such obstacles, his supporters say.
“Here was a guy with a Harvard degree, and a Rhodes scholar, meeting people in urban and rural Indiana,” said Russell Brown, who briefly served as the campaign treasurer. “I would say that he never made people feel like what they offered or what their thoughts were was less valuable than anyone else’s. And I think that’s a pretty impressive trait.”
Schronce, the Montgomery County Democratic Party chairwoman, and her husband, Eric, spent the summer following Buttigieg and two other candidates to county parades and other events, logging 20,000 miles on their minivan.
The couple had four children who marched with them, the 8-year-old carrying a sign that said “Mete Pete.”
In return, Buttigieg would take the kids to a Dairy Queen on the way out of town.
“The guy never stops,” Kathi Schronce said. “It would be 1000 degrees out, and he would be in dress slacks and a shirt and dress shoes. And he would stop and talk and then run to catch up. He’d stop and talk and run to catch up. And never sweat a drop.”
Buttigieg was different from other politicians who passed through without making an impression, Eric Schronce said.
“You just believed, here is somebody worth remembering,” he said.
‘You’re not going to win’
But not everyone was impressed.
“I can recall my immediate reaction being more, ‘What’s the point?’” said Seat, of the Indiana GOP. “‘What are you trying to get out of this? You’re going to get completely swallowed up. You’re not gonna win. Why are you putting yourself forward?’”
Mourdock, Buttigieg’s opponent, said his only memories of the Democrat during the campaign involved awkward encounters. He thought Buttigieg acted overly friendly when they crossed paths at a rural county fair. Mourdock later noticed him marching and “looking a bit lost,” he said.
“To my knowledge, he did not run any television or radio ads, and I never saw any impact of his campaign, or even evidence of a campaign, but for a few yard signs in the offices of the county Democrat parties,” Mourdock said.
Mourdock capitalized on tea party anger about Washington’s overhaul of health insurance and wild swings in property tax assessments that led to the passage of a ballot measure capping tax increases.
He got standing ovations at a campaign rally with conservative media celebrity Glenn Beck, according to an account in the local Elkhart Truth. Joe Arpaio, then an Arizona sheriff and folk hero of the anti-immigration movement, headlined one of his fundraising receptions.
Every Indiana Democrat running statewide lost that year, including a secretary of state candidate whose victorious Republican opponent had been accused of voter fraud, and was later convicted.
Mourdock, who would go on to infamously lose a 2012 race for Senate, even bested Buttigieg in Howard County, where about 6,000 people were employed by Chrysler, General Motors and auto parts maker Delphi, The (Logansport) Pharos-Tribune pointed out.
A local reporter caught up with Buttigieg shortly after the election, as he was clearing out his campaign office and compiling a six-inch-high stack of thank-you letters.
Buttigieg was talking about working on his fixer upper, a turn-of-the-century neoclassical home in South Bend he had bought during the race. He might go back to the private sector, he said.
A month later, he was already gearing up to run for mayor.