Miles Nelson’s campaign materials and website make no mention of him being a Democrat. In a county that’s been led by Republicans for decades, that’s by design.
Nelson, who is running against Republican Sue Finkam to become the first Democrat to win an election for Carmel mayor, describes himself as a moderate and thinks his political party affiliation matters more to other people—especially those on the GOP side—than to himself or his supporters.
He is effusive with praise for outgoing Republican Mayor Jim Brainard, whom he describes as his mentor who helped guide him after he became the first from his party to win a seat on the Carmel City Council.
“I would like to think that there are opportunities for Democrats and Republicans but that we are in the middle,” Nelson said. “You know, for too long, I think we’ve been held hostage by loud voices on the edges. And when you do knock on doors, you quickly learn that most people aren’t on those edges but are in the middle. That’s what the mayor needs. That’s what Mayor Brainard is. That’s what I am.”
But Finkam, who has served three terms on the Carmel City Council, has similarly hooked her campaign wagon at least in part to Brainard, promising to continue his vision for the city. “I believe that my experience and knowledge and training and background really match up nicely with Mayor Brainard,” she told IBJ.
That’s made it more difficult for Nelson to stake out a unique argument that might catch the attention of voters, who have—with some recent exceptions—voted largely for Republicans.
Still, Nelson’s campaign has received a rare amount of local and national attention for a Democrat running in the middle of Indiana. Part of that is because, throughout the country, suburban areas are the new election battleground with large cities reliably going Democrat and rural areas largely voting Republican.
“At the moment, as the bases of support kind of change and the parties evolve, suburbs are really the kind of rare place where there is competition,” said Gregory Shufeldt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis.
Nelson, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, raised more money—nearly $114,000—before the May primary than any Democrat in Carmel history. He also had more funds on hand ahead of the primary than any of the three Republican candidates—Finkam, Kevin “Woody” Rider and Fred Glynn. New campaign finance reports ahead of the general election will be released later this month.
Brainard has attended campaign events and fundraisers for both candidates. Neither campaign would say if Brainard has donated money to their candidates, and the campaign finance deadline for the general election is Oct. 20.
Brainard did not respond to requests for comment about the election from IBJ.
In August, Politico reported that Ron Klain, an Indianapolis native who served as President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, turned his attention to supporting Nelson’s run for mayor and planned to host two fundraisers for the candidate.
Nelson used his war chest to produce four video advertisements. His campaign said in an announcement that the ads are supported by “targeted five-figure media buys on digital, streaming and social platforms across the city.”
Finkam on Oct. 2 released her first TV and digital ad that was backed by a six-figure media buy.
Laura Merrifield Wilson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis, said Democrats recognize Carmel as a place where they could potentially make inroads and develop a strategy that could be used more widely statewide.
“What might they be able to do in other areas in the doughnut counties? What might they be able to replicate? Or how could they be successful in other areas in the state, too?” Wilson said.
Indiana Democratic Party Chair Mike Schmuhl said the explosion of growth in Hamilton County has helped make Carmel and the county a more competitive place for his party than it was in the past.
“I think what you’ve seen, especially over the last few election cycles, is much more of a willingness for voters in Carmel to vote for Democrats and to be excited about the growth of the Democratic Party,” Schmuhl said.
Despite the perceived competitiveness of the Carmel mayoral election, Wilson said it would still be a “tremendous” upset if Nelson were to win.
But a win would give Democrats momentum going into next year’s statewide races for governor and U.S. House and Senate.
“The reason I think it would be tremendous is because [Carmel] is a place that is seen as Republican,” Wilson said. “It’s not the deepest red in the state of Indiana by any sort of imagination, but I think you also have highly educated, highly affluent and highly engaged voters. So, if they make the evaluation and judgment that the best leadership for the vision they see in their community is coming from a Democrat, that says something to others.”
She added that as Carmel’s population has grown—from around 30,000 when Brainard first took office in 1996 to more than 100,000 today—attention has shifted to Carmel in ways that are not typical for a suburban city.
That was evident on Oct. 2 when about 950 people watched an often-contentious debate between Finkam and Nelson at the Palladium.
Shufeldt said that longtime Carmel residents tend to have different political views than newcomers to the city, who could be more likely to vote Democratic.
“When people continue to move into Carmel, they’re increasingly bringing political diversity,” he said.
Democrats in Carmel are also looking to win seats on the City Council with seven members of the party on the ballot compared with four in 2019.
“Picking up some of these seats for Democrats is going to be huge for voters who feel like their voices haven’t been heard in the past with Republicans holding a majority in the county,” Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Dayna Colbert said. “So I think that voters are really going to respond to being represented and having balance on the council.”
The ability to put candidates on the ballot is significant because it means there is a strong contingent of people in the Democratic Party who want to run and the ability to help them, Wilson said.
“It’s giving them the infrastructure, the funding, the connections, the network and being able to support them in that sort of way, which requires a lot of a party. So the party has to be able to have the resources and an ability to do that,” Wilson said.
Carmel is also a city where Democratic candidates have won the vote in recent elections. In 2020, Joe Biden and Joe Donnelly both received more votes from Carmel residents than Donald Trump and Mike Braun in the races for president and U.S. Senate. And last year, Destiny Wells outpaced Diego Morales in Carmel in the Indiana secretary of state election.
However, Wilson said those might have been examples of a majority of voters rejecting the Republican candidate rather than supporting the Democrat.
“Perhaps it’s a negative voting issue. It was voting against certain things they didn’t like,” she said. “But it’s worth noting that … they looked more like Marion County voters than the other 90 counties in the state.”
Observers and leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties in Hamilton County all acknowledged turnout will be key in Carmel. Just 15.6% of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2019 municipal election in Hamilton County.
“In places where there are a mayor’s race and the city council race, and there’s Democrats or Republicans both on the ballot, I would expect that there’s probably not going to be a lot of split ticket, which is why I think it’s probably going to be more about a story of turnout,” Shufeldt said.
Mario Massillamany, chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said he believes poor turnout in 2019 is the reason his party lost the seat Nelson won on the City Council, plus two other seats on the Fishers City Council that went to Democrats.
“I believe we’ll win if our voters show up,” Massillamany said. “If they don’t show up because they think we’re going to win or they’re not going to show up because we haven’t informed them of the date, the times and the locations to vote, then we’re leaving it up to chance.”
He is putting a focus on early voting and recently sent absentee ballots to 28,000 households in Hamilton County.
By banking votes ahead of time, he said, the party doesn’t have to rely on everybody showing up on Nov. 7.
“I think the Republican Party has focused way too much on voting on Election Day,” Massillamany said. “What I’m telling people is the rules have changed. Now we have early voting; we have absentee ballot voting.”•