Nationally, Democrats have little to complain about after Tuesday’s election results, especially in states where abortion-rights dominated the debate.
In Ohio, voters approved a referendum to legalize marijuana and a state constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to an abortion, a move that overturns the state’s strict six-week abortion ban.
Democrats took full control of the Virginia statehouse, blocking Republicans from passing new abortion restrictions in what was a blow to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who is seen as a presidential contender.
Indiana’s municipal elections produced no such seismic shifts.
Democrats did make a few gains in mid-sized cities, flipping the Evansville and Terre Haute mayor’s offices from red to blue and retaining control of the mayor’s offices in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, the state’s two largest cities.
But overall the results seemed to reinforce the Republican reign over Indiana’s vast suburban and rural swaths, raising more questions than answers about whether Democrats can put a dent in the GOP’s long-held dominance over statewide elections in 2024.
“The results in Indiana reaffirm the party strongholds that existed before 2023 and look to be the areas of strengths for the 2024 election,” said Laura Merrifield Wilson, professor of politics at the University of Indianapolis. “Looking at the results tells me that the party strengths and fortunes remained exactly as they had been despite efforts for Republicans to make in-roads in the capital city and Democrats push to win more in the northern suburbs.”
Democrats dominate Marion County
With a resounding 20-point victory, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett won a third term by defeating Republican Jefferson Shreve in what was the most expensive mayoral race in the city’s history.
The victory makes Hogsett the first Indianapolis mayor since the late Bill Hudnut to win three consecutive terms.
“I understand we didn’t get the results that we wanted, but we all should really appreciate Jefferson standing up and fighting for our capital city when he knew the odds were stacked against us,” Marion County GOP Chair Joe Elsener said in a statement.
Democrats also maintained their supermajority on Indianapolis City-County Council, but the GOP did manage to pick up one seat by virtue of independent Ethan Evans deciding not to seek re-election and Republican Derek Cahill winning the newly-drawn District 23, which was expected to tilt red.
In Lawrence, Deb Whitfield defeated deputy mayor Dave Hofmann, flipping the mayor’s office from red to blue and becoming the first Black mayor in Marion County history.
The question now is whether Democrats can parlay their dominance in the state’s largest city into any kind of momentum statewide, something that never materialized during Hogsett’s first two terms.
Money can’t buy a mayoral election
What did $13.5 million buy Jefferson Shreve? A few percentage points more of the vote than the two previous underfunded GOP candidates for Indianapolis mayor. But the money couldn’t bring a victory or something even remotely resembling a tight race.
Shreve, who tapped into his own personal fortune to fund his mayoral bid, was viewed as the party’s best chance at defeating Hogsett, but Tuesday’s election showed that even a well-funded opponent couldn’t overcome the Democratic stronghold in Indianapolis.
In some ways, Shreve may have been left with an impossible task. He faced criticism from members of his own party when he came out in support of gun control measures but doing so may have been necessary to try to entice independents and Democrats to vote for him.
“He chose to moderate or was actually a moderate on several issues, talking about guns, talking about abortion, not in the ways that people would expect a traditional Republican to do,” said Andy Downs. “That may have turned off some of his base, but the demographics of Indianapolis and Marion County are such that you probably cannot win a race with a campaign message that is aligned closely with the further right portion of the party.”
Shreve said the loss was a reminder of the “partisan headwinds” that have come to dominate elections at all levels of government.
“I think increasingly, even in a municipal or local election, citizens go to their corners in ways that aren’t healthy,” Shreve told IBJ after his election night loss. “That 65-35 partisan split in a municipal election is not good for our community, and it was hard to overcome that. I overcame that delta by some, but not enough, and that’s not good for communities, and I think we’ll see that become even more the case in the cycle next year. And that’s going to have implications.”
Republicans keep rockin’ the suburbs
Democrats touted big victories in Marion County but suffered losses in Hamilton and Boone counties, a sobering reminder that the party hasn’t turned the northern suburbs blue.
Carmel elected Sue Finkam as its next mayor, ensuring the city will remain under Republican rule after 28 years with Jim Brainard at the helm. She defeated Miles Nelson by almost 5,000 votes.
The race drew considerable attention to the Hamilton County suburb throughout the election. That was evident when about 950 people attended a debate between Finkam and Nelson at Carmel’s Palladium performing arts center, where the two traded verbal jabs.
Nelson criticized Finkam for refusing to denounce conservative group Moms for Liberty, while Finkam accused Nelson of using the issue as a distraction to cover for his lack of experience in city government.
“Our campaign focused heavily on IDing voters, persuading undecideds, chasing absentee ballots, and turning out Republicans,” Kory Wood, a partner at Ascent Strategic, which worked on Finkam’s campaign, posted on X. “The work of our team and volunteers paid off in a BIG way. If Republicans want to win in tough races across our state and nationally, we must get back to the basics and put in the hard work to win elections.”
Republicans also won all but one seat on the Carmel City Council, and retained all of their nine seats on Noblesville City Council.
In Fishers, Republicans added another seat on the city council. The Zionsville Town Council will have six Republicans and one Democrat next year.
Despite the losses, Democratic Party leaders think Hamilton County will get more competitive as demographics shift.
“I think that this is our first bite at the apple in Hamilton County at the local level,” Democratic Party Chair Mike Schmuhl said in a press conference Thursday. “I think that it’s the very, very first time where we’ve had almost full slates in both Carmel and Fishers, and I’m proud of the candidates and the campaigns that they built and that they ran.”
Elsewhere, mostly a political wash
Democrats successfully flipped eight mayoral seats from red to blue: Evansville, Hobart, Lawrence, Michigan City, Plymouth, Terre Haute, Vernon and West Lafayette.
Republicans, meanwhile, flipped 14 mayoral seats in their favor, and still maintain control of the vast majority of elected offices in Indiana. Those cities include Delphi, Greendale, Marion, Monticello, Portage and Zionsville, among others.
“Indiana Republicans wrapped up another successful municipal election cycle on Tuesday,” Indiana GOP Chairwoman Anne Hathaway said in a statement to IBJ. “We were able to pick up ground in many cities across the state including flipping fourteen mayors offices resulting in a new record of Republican mayors statewide. The hard work of our candidates and grassroots leaders, and our message of putting people over politics once again paid dividends. We look forward to building on this momentum as we prepare for 2024.”
Schmuhl, meanwhile, says the Democratic Party plans to launch another statewide tour next year, as it did ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, to shore up more support statewide.
“Next year is really, I think, a referendum on 20 years of Republican administrations in Indiana,” he said.
Younger, more diverse candidates stepping up
Tuesday’s results showed that younger and minority populations are getting better representation at the local level.
Stephanie Terry, a Democrat, was elected in Evansville, making her the city’s first Black and first female mayor.
Brandon Sakbun, a 27-year-old Army veteran, defeated long-time Republican Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, becoming the youngest mayor in the city’s history. His parents are from Cambodia and Jamaica.
Democrat Angie Nelson Deuitch declared victory, making her the first Black mayor in Michigan City.
Ronald Morrell Jr. is the first Black Republican to be elected mayor in Indiana’s history after winning in the city of Marion.
Morrell Jr. was one of six graduates of the Indiana Republican Party’s Diversity Leadership Series that were on the ballot Tuesday. Also on the ballot was Tiffanie Ditlevson, who won a city council seat in Fishers.