Democrats have grown increasingly competitive in recent Hamilton County elections, but the chairs of both the local Democratic and GOP parties say they don’t expect any upsets of Republicans in this year’s county-level races.
Instead, Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Joe Weingarten said he expects Democrats this year are more likely to win state and federal races.
That may sound surprising, given that Democrats have had increased participation and gains in recent local election cycles. In fact, Democrats have gone from regularly having zero candidates on the ballot in Hamilton County, to a single candidate eight years ago, to challengers in nearly every race in 2020.
But the biggest wins last year happened in Fishers and Carmel, which are more urban and growing a little more diverse. Countywide races incorporate much more rural areas where voters are more likely to be Republican.
Still, Weingarten is encouraged by the number of candidates his party put on the ballot and Democrats’ chances up the ticket.
“We have candidates for all but one countywide and one state office,” Weingarten said. “This year, I think we’re going to win more than a few.”
Republican Victoria Spartz and Democrat Christina Hale are vying for Indiana’s 5th Congressional District seat, which includes the northern portion of Marion County, eastern portion of Boone County and all of Hamilton County, along with all of Tipton, Madison and Grant counties and part of Howard and Blackford counties.
Inside Elections, a major political analyst, changed its prediction for the district Friday from “toss-up” to “tilt Democrat.” Republicans have held the seat for decades, and other major rating analysts still consider the race a toss-up and Campbell says it’s a primary focus for Republicans.
“The 5th district is probably the most hotly contested race in the area. That’s one both sides have been putting a lot of money into,” said Republican Chairwoman Laura Campbell. “But, I feel pretty good about our countywide races as long as Republicans turn out to vote. I think there’s a lot of interest in this election cycle, but we don’t take anything for granted. We’re working hard.”
Several state legislative races are also in play—many for the first time recent memory. Weingarten highlighted the House District 37 race, wherein Democrat Aimee Rivera Cole is once again challenging incumbent Republican Todd Huston, who is the speaker of the Indiana House. Two years ago, Cole’s earned 46% of the vote but she’s been advertising heavily on TV this year.
That Huston and other GOP legislators—including Rep. Jerry Torr of Carmel—are facing such tough challenges is the latest sign that the politics of Hamilton County are changing, just as they appear to be in many suburban areas across the country.
In 2012, Republicans ran uncontested for every local office to sweep the ballot. Two years later, Rosemary Dunkle was the Democrats’ lone contender for a county position. She challenged Republican Fred Glynn for the Hamilton County Council District 1 seat and lost by a margin of nearly 44 percentage points.
Weingarten said Democrats made a concerted effort in the following election to provide voters with a mixed ballot, but Republicans were able to easily stave off any potential upsets. They won every race in 2016—most often by a margin of at least 30 percentage points.
“We did wind up waking people up to the fact that there are Democrats here,” Weingarten said.
In the 2018 general election, Democrats narrowed their deficit in county-level races to an average 22 percentage points and Weingarten said the party succeeded in getting a Democrat elected to a township board for the first time in decades.
“If you’re any minority party and you’re trying to build, you have to take any success and claim it as success,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University-Fort Wayne. “Narrowing a gap to get 40% of the vote instead of 30% of the vote, that sounds good, but it’s still a 20% loss. Victories of any kind give you the ability to say you’re viable.”
Democrats finally scored in last year’s municipal election, where three Democrats beat their Republican opponents to claim seats on the Carmel and Fishers city councils.
But Downs questioned whether last year’s Democratic victories would have relevance this year.
He pointed to Democrat Miles Nelson’s bid for the Carmel City Council as an example. Nelson may have won that race by 12 percentage points, but he only got 1,467 votes. Downs said a reasonably well-organized campaign could make contact with every single one of those voters, a feat that’s much harder to accomplish and much more expensive in a county election.
“You can accomplish much more with shoe leather in a citywide campaign than you can in a county race,” Downs said. “Looking countywide, you’re looking at tens of thousands of voters.”
Campbell is also doubtful those wins by Democrats in Fishers and Carmel could translate to Democratic victories in this year’s countywide races. She said recent transplants to Carmel and Fishers by residents from the East and West coasts or Illinois could’ve caused last year’s municipal races to lean left.
But this year’s broader voter base and high voter turnout may produce a different result.
“I don’t have a crystal ball now to determine that it will be the same this year,” Campell said. “We really won’t know until after the votes are counted.”
She said Hamilton County residents need only to compare their low taxes, safe communities and consistent rankings as one of the country’s best places to live to understand why they should keep voting Republican.
According to Downs, the Republicans’ long-time stronghold gives the party advantages.
“Voters are used to having two options,” he said. “They also understand—whether they articulate it or not—that we have a winner-take-all system. A lot of people don’t vote their preference, they vote [for the candidate] closest to their preferences that actually has the best chances of winning.”
Still, he said, every election is unique. If the Democrats want to continue their long-term advances, Downs said, victories near the top of the ballot could help establish name recognition and bring in more money down the line.
“Ideally, you’re trying to do both things,” he said.