Debate Exposes Pete Buttigieg’s Electability Problem: He Was Crushed in His One Statewide Race

Even controlling for the tea party wave, Buttigieg lost worse than nearly any other Democrat in 2010, according to a Data for Progress analysis.

Pete Buttigieg speaks with a member of the media following the Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles on Dec. 19, 2019. Photo: Martina Albertazzi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Challenged at Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate for his lack of experience, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg reached for an argument he’s been making throughout the campaign: His success in the Midwest, which Democrats need to win back in order to reclaim the White House, shows that he is able to win a general election. 

“If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana,” Buttigieg told fellow Midwesterner Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. 

While Buttigieg, who was elected mayor in 2011 and is closing out his second term, has made this argument on the campaign trail, it went largely unchallenged until last night, when Klobuchar went for Buttigieg’s electability Achilles’ heel: his 2010 bid for Indiana state treasurer. 

“Mayor, if you had won in Indiana that would be one thing,” Klobuchar pushed back. “You tried and you lost by 20 points.”

Klobuchar didn’t go into detail, not naming the race or the year, but an examination of Buttigieg’s 2010 statewide run — which he actually lost by 25 percentage points — is damaging to his key claim that he can win in “Mike Pence’s Indiana.” 

Buttigieg’s run wasn’t an entirely quixotic effort; indeed, in 2008, Barack Obama won Indiana on his way to the White House. 2010 was a bad year for Democrats — the tea party swept Democrats from the House — but Buttigieg’s loss was one of the worst in the entire country, adjusting for partisan lean, according to an analysis from the progressive think tank Data for Progress and provided to The Intercept. 

While Buttigieg lost by 25 points, the four other statewide Democrats were beaten by margins of 14.6 to 21.3 percentage points. In other words, a significant number of voters went to the ballot box and cast votes for every Democrat statewide except Buttigieg.

The think tank looked at 51 competitive Indiana statewide elections since 1996 and found that of those 51 races, Buttigieg did worse than all but David Johnson in 2000, who was wiped out by the famously well-regarded (at the time) Richard Lugar for Senate. The median margin Democrats lost by was 11 percent.

Buttigieg also fared poorly in comparison to Democrats in the rest of the country too. In 2010, there were 21 races for state treasurer with both a Democrat and Republican. He did worse than all but four. Because Indiana leans Republican — Trump won it by 20 percentage points in 2016 — comparing how state treasurer candidates did relative to Obama in 2008 is more instructive. Buttigieg ran 25.9 points behind Obama, a worse collapse than all but two candidates. The median candidate in 2010 dropped just 7.9 points from Obama’s margin statewide. (One of the two who did worse than Buttigieg was in Illinois, which isn’t surprising, since Obama racked up unusually large margins in his home state. The other was in Nebraska.)

As The Intercept reported previously, in an attempt to undermine his GOP opponent for state treasurer, Richard Mourdock, Buttigieg swore off money from banks and limited what he would take from bankers, calling it a “conflict of interest.” On Thursday night, in a back and forth with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he argued that big money in politics is not, in fact, compromising. 

In 2012, Mourdock made a bid for Senate. During the campaign, he claimed that if a woman is impregnated by rape, an abortion should still be illegal, because that’ssomething God intended.” He was beaten by Democrat Joe Donnelly.

Buttigieg, shortly before running for treasurer, signed up for the military (he was sworn in in 2009 and later served active duty for nine months while he was mayor). He would later address a gathering of people associated with the tea party, hoping to peel off enough votes to put together the coalition needed to win — the coalition he claimed Thursday night he has the ability to put together.

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