Pete Buttigiegs 38-year-old ex-campaign manager and childhood pal is showing Democrats how they can win back rural America
Pete Buttigieg’s 38-year-old ex-campaign manager and childhood pal is showing Democrats how they can win back rural America
Mike Schmuhl stood at the front of the tiny town-hall meeting inside the municipal building, framed by American and Indiana flags. It was a recent dark Tuesday night, not long after daylight saving time ended. In front of a crowd of about two dozen people, in a town of a little more than 800, Schmuhl was serving as President Joe Biden’s salesman in rural America, pitching the benefits of the administration’s COVID-relief and infrastructure plans.
But first, Schmuhl had to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Biden lost this county to Donald Trump a year ago by 50 points, in a state Trump won by 16 points. A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide seat in Indiana since 2012. By 2024, Indiana, which Barack Obama won in 2008, will have gone two decades without a Democratic governor.
“I don’t think we can write off certain areas and say it’s always red, or another area where it’s always blue,” Schmuhl, 38, told the audience in his soft-spoken, even-keeled way, answering the question that hung in the air but that nobody would ask: Why is this guy here? “Well, we can make it more blue, or we can make it less red.”
Schmuhl opened the meeting by leading those who’d gathered in the Pledge of Allegiance. He was, he explained, the new Indiana Democratic Party chairman, amid a “Small Town, Indiana” statewide press tour touting the president’s legislative accomplishments.
“I just have never been attracted to Twitter. I think it’s just a race to the bottom.” – Mike Schmuhl
Since Schmuhl became his state party’s chairman earlier this year, he has embarked on four such statewide tours. They’ve mostly unfolded in out-of-the-way territory unfriendly to Democrats in recent history.
On this night, though, in a small town closer to Chicago than to Indianapolis, Schmuhl ticked through a few of Biden’s wins before a rapt, most friendly audience. One in five Hoosiers didn’t have access to broadband internet, he told them. Biden’s legislation would fix that. The state had 1,100 bridges that would be repaired thanks to the infrastructure legislation. Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure deal — championed by Schmuhl’s best friend, Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary — would fix that, too. A child tax credit was helping parents care for their kids thanks to Biden. And the state budget passed by a Republican supermajority in Indianapolis earlier this year? The one that included teacher pay raises? They could thank Biden for that, too.
But what should they say when they hear their neighbors talk about whether Democrats want to defund the police?
“The American Rescue Plan gave money to first responders, police, and firefighters all across Indiana for all the hard work that they’ve done throughout COVID,” Schmuhl told the room. “I think we should give them a round of applause for protecting our communities.”
Witnessing the whole scene felt a little bit like being inside a live version of Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting “Freedom of Speech” — if it weren’t anachronistic for the townsfolk in a Norman Rockwell painting to crane their necks at the mention of better broadband internet. To my ear, Schmuhl’s pitch sounded far different from the Democrats-in-disarray discourse du jour on Twitter. It’s likely no coincidence that throughout the 2020 campaign, Schmuhl never tweeted, and he still does not have a public account.
“I just have never been attracted to Twitter,” Schmuhl told me later that evening over Miller Lights and hot pepper cheese cubes at a Wheatfield dive bar called LJ’s (Every dive bar excursion for Schmuhl is a research opportunity; after the campaign, he bought Joe’s Tavern, a South Bend bar.) “I think it’s just a race to the bottom. I’ve just always been more focused on direct voter contact, direct voter engagement, building authentic campaigns, and talking to people face-to-face. I don’t think there’s any substitute for it. It sounds super cheesy.”
Schmuhl helped Buttigieg build a $100 million startup of a presidential campaign that vaulted his friend from the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city to Biden’s Cabinet. Now for the hard part: getting Hoosiers to vote Democratic. Here in red America, as he tries to win hearts and minds for the Democratic cause, Schmuhl’s secret weapon is his “tone,” Hari Sevugan, Buttigieg’s former deputy campaign manager, told me.
“The problem Democrats face isn’t that people don’t like what we’re selling,” said Sevugan, who worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as a member of its rapid-response team. “It’s that our sales pitch always sounds like we’re yelling at them for not having bought it already. Mike is deliberate, but not reactionary. And his inclination is to pull people together instead of push people into corners. That’ll give him an opening.”
The Democratic Party is still picking its way through the detritus of its November loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, in which it faced historically lopsided margins in rural counties. “The Virginia election is like alarm bells, screeching as loudly as they can possibly screech,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, of Illinois, who has been helping Democrats running in Trump districts learn how to win there, told Insider. “We’ve got to learn from it.”
Schmuhl is on the front lines of that learning. That’s just the latest reason Schmuhl’s stock has risen, as national reporters and campaign managers call him for takeaways and advice about how the party can win back flyover country ahead of a bruising midterm cycle in 2022.
Since January I’ve interviewed Schmuhl at least a dozen times, following him across Indiana in an off year to places such as French Lick, two hours south of Indianapolis and not far from Louisville, Kentucky, as he rallied Democrats at the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association confab. I’ve had long conversations about Schmuhl’s unlikely rescue operation and the fate of rural Democrats with more than two dozen party insiders, donors, and operatives. These people tell me that what Schmuhl is doing in Indiana could yield the party valuable insights about what works in red states.
“He’s going to places where we Democrats haven’t been in a long time to make sure that people understand what our values are and what we’re fighting for,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison said of Schmuhl in an interview. “I think that’s the beginning of the efforts to make sure that — we may not win rural communities outright, but we can sure cut the margins by which we lose those areas and eventually grow the margins so that we can win.”
Schmuhl’s next few years as party chairman in a barn-red state are becoming a test case for whether Democrats can win back lost ground — or at least keep margins closer — in states with rural populations ahead of midterm elections promising to be a bloodbath for the party writ large. It is not an easy job, according to Dan Parker, who filled Schmuhl’s role from 2004 to 2013. “Dealing with potholes, and roads, and construction and trash, and floods and drainage and neighborhoods and residents complaining at me all the time is still better than being Indiana Democratic Party chairman,” said Parker, director of the Indianapolis Department of Public Works for Mayor Joe Hogsett.
“There’s no one I’ve worked with who I’ve seen take on a bigger long-shot project than Mike and succeed,” Lis Smith, a former Buttigieg 2020 campaign advisor, said. “He is the model for what red-state party chairs should be.”
“It’s important that those folks understand what we have done for them. Because at the end of the day, every voter wants to be seen. They want to be heard. They want to be valued.” – Jaime Harrison
In interviews in recent months, Schmuhl has compared his work to rebuilding the Cleveland Browns, the NFL franchise that, after decades of irrelevance, revamped its front office in 2019 after a six-win season. The Browns notched a winning season last year.
“For Indiana Democrats, it’s a total rebuild,” Mike O’Brien, the president of 1816 Public Affairs Group and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s former campaign manager, told me. “Republicans have 88% of local offices, supermajorities in the Legislature, and Democrats’ candidate for governor came in third place in over 30 counties. The conventional wisdom of purple suburbs didn’t play out. It’s catastrophically bad. So they have to go places they’ve never gone to try to find some base of support outside of a few urban cores that they hold.”
But national Democrats face a more immediate task ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
“It will be virtually impossible for the Democratic Party to maintain any kind of majority if they don’t pay attention to this issue,” said former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, the last Democrat to survive in her state’s three-member congressional delegation before she lost in 2018. Heitkamp went on to start the nonprofit One Country Project along with Schmuhl’s first boss, former Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who also lost his seat that year.
In Virginia, the Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin drove high turnout in rural areas, and Democrats failed to overcome those margins in cities and the suburbs. “It’s important that those folks understand what we have done for them,” Harrison told me. “Because at the end of the day, every voter wants to be seen. They want to be heard. They want to be valued.”
Harrison established a seven-figure Red State Fund earlier this year to benefit states like Indiana that meet at least two of the following criteria: no Democratic senator or governor, less than 25% Democratic representation among its congressional delegation, and a supermajority of Republicans in their state legislature. Indiana satisfies all three.
“We used to like to say we were trying to lose less bad,” Bradley Beychok, a cofounder and senior advisor of American Bridge, the largest Democratic opposition research firm in the county, said in an interview. “And if you go from 85-15 to 75-25 in many of these areas, and you continue to build on or hold our strengths within our base with suburban areas, then it makes us much more competitive overall. It’s not rocket science.”
J.D. Scholten, the executive director of Rural Vote PAC and a two-time former congressional candidate in Iowa’s rural 4th District, told Insider that Democrats were losing a messaging battle to Republicans — exacerbated in deep-red, sparsely populated counties where misinformation is prevalent.
What Schmuhl is doing in Indiana could be a model that Democrats emulate in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. “The Biden administration is giving us the opportunity to go out and preach what’s happening,” Scholten told me, adding: “This is the largest investment in rural America since the New Deal. And we need messengers going out there and talking to them.”
Schmuhl might’ve been formed in a lab to be that messenger. He was born in 1983 in South Bend to Robert Schmuhl, the University of Notre Dame professor and historian who founded the Gallivan Program in Journalism, teaching journalists like The Washington Post’s Robert Costa. His mother, Judy Schmuhl, is a retired special-education teacher in public and private schools. For a couple of months in 1974, in the wake of Watergate, the elder Schmuhl had what he calls “a save-the-Republic experience” while he was pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Indiana University. He volunteered his writing services for an unsuccessful congressional campaign. In 1975, he became more involved by managing Frank McCloskey’s mayoral reelection campaign in Bloomington. During that campaign, he met Judy.
“Mike was the person who could speak Pete’s language. He was the person who would deliver tough news to him.” – Lis Smith
The younger Schmuhl, meanwhile, followed in his parents’ political footsteps. His first political memory, he told me, was watching the 1988 Democratic presidential field on television and taking a shine to Jesse Jackson, the Baptist minister, and political activist. After that moment, he would run around his house and chant: Jesse. Jesse. Jesse.
He had planned to go into journalism, working as an intern on NBC’s “Meet the Press” under Tim Russert in 2004. He worked as a producer and booker at The Post but returned to Indiana in 2009 to work for his hometown congressman Joe Donnelly, leading him to a House victory in his first campaign. Back in South Bend, he reconnected with Buttigieg and managed his successful and insurgent 2011 mayoral campaign following Buttigieg’s 2010 loss to the Republican state treasurer, Richard Mourdock. “For a while there, we had both managed a mayoral and a congressional, and I would always joke with my dad that my record was better than his,” Schmuhl told me.
Schmuhl served as Buttigieg’s chief of staff through May 2013, then earned his master’s at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Schmuhl and Buttigieg have been known to converse in French when they need to have a sensitive conversation among other people.
When Schmuhl came back home from France in 2015, he did stints in Chicago and New York at 270 Strategies, the Democratic consulting firm founded by the Obama 2008 campaign veterans Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird.
In the fall of 2018, I met Schmuhl at a coffee shop within LangLab, the South Bend coworking place where Buttigieg married Chasten that June. By then, Schmuhl had moved back to his hometown in preparation for his best friend’s presidential bid. Over coffee and tea, he sketched out the contours of a White House campaign that would lean heavily on the candidate’s success in another “I” state. Iowa, like Indiana, was full of a lot of small towns. It also happened to hold the Hoosier State’s iconic fried-pork-tenderloin sandwich in high esteem.
On the campaign, Schmuhl was Buttigieg’s closest consigliere. “Mike was the person who could speak Pete’s language,” Lis Smith told me. “He was the person who would deliver tough news to him.”
Schmuhl and I crossed paths a year later in Iowa as Buttigieg’s campaign took off there. Then Buttigieg won the Iowa caucuses, becoming the first openly gay candidate to secure delegates in a presidential contest. But because the result was so muddy — on account of a digital caucus app not working — Buttigieg never got the fundraising or media bump the campaign needed.
After Buttigieg dropped out, Schmuhl took a job at Heartland Ventures, a Midwestern venture-capital firm. A few months later, John Zody, the Indiana Democratic Party chairman, announced his retirement. Hoosier Democratic insiders entreated him to run, but Schmuhl repeatedly declined.
Then January 6 happened. Like his father’s experience following Watergate, Schmuhl faced his own gut-check moment. “It did have an impact,” Schmuhl told me back in February. “I think it was that graphic image and also a combination of Joe Biden’s inauguration and also the selection of Jaime Harrison as DNC chair. In just sort of the macro picture, it really kind of came together, and I think that we’re really at a turning point for our country.”
Back at the Wheatfield town hall, a photographer snapped photos of Schmuhl. “Should I smile or what?” he said. For much of his adult life, he’s been the guy behind the guy. Now, he’s the guy, and he is stepping into all of what that brings with it, not least of which are awkward photo shoots. He looks the part of the candidate on the hustings, wearing his trademark Ariat Rambler boots and his Legendary Whitetails barn jacket.
We left the town hall and trundled over to a dive bar. You had to squint to see the difference between a November night here and a November night back in Iowa in 2019. A Casey’s general store and gas station, the ubiquitous Iowa institution, was a stone’s throw away. The territory is similar, but Schmuhl’s access to resources here in Indiana is not. Back then, he had a staff of hundreds he could lean on, 33 offices across Iowa, and millions of dollars to make things happen. He has plans to tap into Buttigieg’s national donor network and wants to staff up ahead of Indiana’s midterm cycle.
Schmuhl is every bit as facile at brandishing a sound bite as his friend Buttigieg. Later in the week, after the Wheatfield visit, I’d watch him on a local Fox affiliate make this observation: “After Virginia, all the national hot takes were ‘Democrats need to get out there into the rural areas. Democrats need to go and talk to the people.’ And I received a lot of calls from national folks, some journalists saying, you know, ‘Wow, what are you doing in Indiana?’ We’re doing that. And we’ve been doing that for months.”
And with each visit, even in an off-year, he’s racking up reels and reams of local news clips and front pages. His American Rescue Plan tour garnered nearly 30 news stories, from Peru to Warsaw to Terre Haute; his American Jobs Plan tour generated nearly two dozen.
During another tour stop in Carroll County this summer, a small contingent of Hoosier Democrats flipped pork burgers on a grill, though the crowd, seated around 20 tables, was largely filled with Republicans. Jon Hooker, the president of the Central Indiana Building & Construction Trades, headlined the event. But when the audience realized he was a Democrat, shoulders tightened and brows furrowed. There were no insults or “Let’s go Brandon” taunts; the meme hadn’t yet been born. But by the end of his speech, Hooker, deployed there by Schmuhl, had at least scored some uncrossed arms in the audience. (“We’re going to talk to people around the state about issues that matter and how Democrats can help,” Hooker told me.)
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s what Schmuhl did for Mayor Pete in 2020.
“He was a big driver behind our go-everywhere strategy,” Smith said, adding that it wasn’t just about media appearances, but unlikely geographical ones. “It was not just about hitting the normal liberal erogenous zones. It meant that we were going to rural communities, talking to rural outlets.”
“Unless you go to these places and make the case, my conclusion from being in Ohio for years as chair, these places assume you’re not talking about them,” said David Pepper, the former Ohio Democratic Party chairman and author of the book “Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call from Behind the Lines,” which examines how Republicans have taken over state legislatures.
In Indiana, Schmuhl’s been rambling across the state’s highways and byways in a used blue pickup truck that he acquired from a mechanic friend. The truck came with 177,000 miles and a lift kit that makes it particularly challenging for him to fit it into a parking-garage space. Back in South Bend, even amid the city’s harsh winters, Schmuhl is frequently spotted on his yellow 1975 Schwinn Le Tour, nicknamed Curious George, snow or not.
But Schmuhl is not content to bask in the glow of boosting Buttigieg’s unlikely rise.
When Laura O’Sullivan, a former Buttigieg mayoral chief of staff, arranged a special South Bend screening with the “Mayor Pete” documentarian Jesse Moss for alums of Buttigieg’s mayoral staff last month, Schmuhl wasn’t in town.
He was busy, a friend told me, “out across Indiana saving democracy.”