Marion County Republicans are busily setting the foundation for what remains a rare task in an otherwise reliably red state: clawing back seats in 2023 on the city-county council, where they’re outnumbered 1:4, and taking back other elected positions.
November 2019 was a low point. That year, Marion County Democrats flipped six City-County Council seats, locking in four years of a 20-5 supermajority. Democrat Mayor Joe Hogsett also easily beat out Republican former state Sen. Jim Merritt, who was Marion County Republican Party chair until December 2018.
The organization, also known as IndyGOP, was left to pick up the pieces. There’s no word yet on whether Hogsett will seek a third term, but Republicans want to be ready no matter who the mayoral opposition is.
Joe Elsener became IndyGOP’s latest chair in March 2021, taking over from former state Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer. He’s also been heavily involved with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s campaign and the state party.
Under his leadership, the local party has worked to build a sturdier foundation: rolling out a new website with a centralized events calendar, maintaining a consistent presence on social media, launching a new weekly newsletter and starting a young Republicans Club.
IndyGOP has brought on Executive Director Joel Bragg. The nine township clubs are back and active. Members are out at events from a Wayne Township parade to a booth at the Historic Irvington Halloween Festival, according to Elsener.
“We’ve been working across the board this year, and it definitely has not felt like an off-election year, as they say,” Elsener said this week. “It has been one of the busier non-election years of my life, but it’s been really exciting to kind of see people energized and looking forward to the future.”
“We all realize that we’re not going to take back the county overnight,” said City-County Council Minority Leader Brian Mowery. “This is going to be a process. We’re going to need people committed to building this organization and being competitive again. So I think that’s how we’re going to do it, is these weekly newsletters, social media, community events.”
He also said the Republican caucus and IndyGOP leaders are on better terms now than in the past, when a disagreement would turn “into a whole match.”
“We’ve gotten rid of a lot of that,” Mowery said. “He’s done a really fantastic job with keeping an open line of communications, working with councilors. … I talk to Joe just about every day. We’re always bouncing ideas off each other, having these conversations and trying to work together.”
It helps, he said, to have money in the bank, thanks to IndyGOP’s stepped-up fundraising efforts.
Marion County Democrats, meanwhile, have been focused on cementing their numbers.
The party’s REV Up Indy campaign, which stands for “register every voter,” seeks to identify Marion County newcomers who were once registered Democrats elsewhere, but who haven’t re-registered since moving. The number of recent arrivals fluctuates, since the voter file Indy Democrats uses gets updated monthly, but is in the high 30,000s, according to Chair Kate Sweeney Bell.
“We did that because we heard nary a whisper about what the new districts would look like,” Sweeney Bell said, referencing the recent Republican-led state-level legislative redistricting.
“We tried to be prepared for maps that are the worst-case scenario by increasing our base across the county,” she added.
For Sweeney Bell and the Indy Democrats, outreach strategies like social media usage, a newsletter and regular township meetings are basics, and already well-established. But there’s still room to do more, she said, especially in the townships where the party’s hold isn’t as strong.
“I’m old enough to remember a time where the only Democrat stronghold was in Center Township. Six are now reliably Democrat. But it’s important for our party to not take them for granted, and to not ignore the other three,” Sweeney Bell said. “So we intend to welcome and, if necessary, recruit, candidates—even in those townships.”
The position of mayor and all 25 City-County Council seats will be up for election in 2023. But some county-level roles, including assessor, auditor, clerk, prosecutor, recorder and sheriff will be up in next fall’s elections. (Sweeney Bell is also Marion County Recorder.)
“We’ve got to finish the year strong, right? We still have two months … and then from there, it’s looking at 2022,” Elsener said. “You know, people love to talk about the mayor’s race and council races, and we’re focused on all those, on a daily basis. But also, there are important races in 2022, whether it’s the state House, state Senate, countywide races, local races.”
And both Elsener and Sweeney Bell said they will pay careful attention to county-level redistricting, which the council is scheduled to begin early in 2022. It’ll be the first time Democrats will control the process.
Republicans have said they’d like to see both caucuses get money to work on maps. The nonpartisan council office, which was budgeted $300,000 for redistricting, has been mum on how the money will be used, besides an initial community engagement and civic education campaign.