On April 2nd, I was in Indiana visiting my parents. Nobody was talking about anything other than the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which had passed the week before. For an entire week it dominated TV news, and consumed the front pages of the daily newspapers.

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Leaders of the religious right hailed passage of the bill, asserting that in the name of religious tolerance it gave business owners the right to deny services to gay people.

After passage Indiana’s business’s community howled, including some of the republican governor’s major contributors. Eli LillyApple Computer and the Chamber of Commerce denounced the bill. Conventions were cancelled. One prominent company cancelled plans to expand. The NCAA, headquartered in Indianapolis, made noise about moving to another state.

What Those Running for Office Can Learn From Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

On April 2nd, the two legislators who had shepherded the bill through the legislature a week before held a press conference to walk back the bill. The bill that had caused the firestorm was gutted overnight, a new bill written, and passed the next day…one that explicitly prohibited discrimination against gay people.

I leave to legal scholars the debate over merits of the billThis post is about the politics of the legislation, the blow-back and how it was handled.

1. This bill as originally passed was a bone to the Christian Right in Indiana, still upset that a Judge had made gay marriage legal in the Hoosier state.

2. The GOP in the legislature underestimated the adverse public reaction, particularly that of the republican business community that is an integral cog in the GOP fundraising wheel.

3. When the noise reached a fevered pitch at the state and national level, the legislators who had voted for the bill were forced to throw the Christian Right under the bus.

There are lessons here for both the GOP and any Governor, legislator, person holding public office or running for office.

1. Do not do things that divide essential elements of your governing coalition, especially bills that get you nothing from the middle. It will fracture your base, and make it more difficult to govern.

2. If you step in it, acknowledge it. Admit the mistake. Make peace with those who howled. Do your Kumbaya and do it in public. At the press conference announcing the rewrite, business and LGBT leaders were invited. GOP Legislators did their mea a culpa, made nice with those who howled and answered questions until the press was tired of asking questions.

3. There is a big lesson here for GOP and those running for office. Denying civil rights to gay people is not a strategy that is going to win a national election. Indiana is a fundamentally conservative state. If this sort of thing is a loser in Indiana, it is a loser just about everywhere. Indeed, when the Governor of Arkansas saw the political carnage the tornado had done to Indiana, he refused to sign a similar bill.

4. There is also a lesson here if you are running for Governor. Do not do what Indiana Governor Mike Pence did. He prominently pushed the original bill and then got egg on his face when he could not defend it on national TV. Instead of taking his medicine, he forced legislators to do the mea a culpa press conference while he hid in his office. He barred the press from his office when he signed the rewrite that gutted his original legislation. And then he skipped town in the dark of night. It was not a profile in courage. His chances of being on a national ticket died in the tornado.

Have some thoughts you’d like to share? Hit the comment button and let’s hear it.

Stay tuned for more on the art of running for office and how to win an election.


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Political consultant Jay Townsend works with smart, passionate candidates who want to run for office, win elections and make a difference. He has successfully helped candidates learn how to run for the U.S. Senate, how to run for Congress, how to run for Mayor and develop a winning campaign marketing strategy.

How to win an election:

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