In early 2017, Jim Merritt took over as chair of the Marion County Republican Party. His first goal was to find a credible, fundable candidate for Indianapolis mayor.
He identified six potential candidates. But the big problem was campaign cash, and the Democrat—Joe Hogsett—had tons of it, ultimately spending about $5 million on the race. With this in mind, Merritt said he asked the Indiana Republican Party for monetary support for a mayoral candidate but was turned down.
“Eventually 2018 came along, and October came along,” Merritt told IBJ. “I was not successful in finding a candidate to get behind.”
So he decided to throw himself into the ring. He launched his campaign for mayor and got trounced by current Hogsett, who won his second term with 73% of the vote.
Merritt’s experience shows how difficult it is to recruit a Republican to run for mayor in increasingly Democratic Indianapolis.
So far, no clear GOP candidates have emerged for 2023. And current GOP county chair Joe Elsener acknowledges that one candidate who was testing the waters—businessman Steve Sorrel—already has decided against a run. Sorrel couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Elsener said he remains optimistic about fielding a strong candidate despite the challenges–and he emphasizes that it won’t be him.
The drubbing that GOP mayoral candidates have taken over the past two elections might be enough to scare off many potential candidates. In addition to Merritt’s loss in 2019, Republican mayoral candidate Chuck Brewer endured a similar fate, garnering just 38% of the vote against Hogsett in 2015.
But Merritt is hopeful that criticism of the Hogsett administration related to crime and street conditions will help put a Republican mayor back in office.
Laura Wilson, political science professor at the University of Indianapolis, said it’s easy to see why some Republicans would be wary.
“They recognize that this is an uphill battle, much like I think a Democratic candidate for governor in Indiana would,” Wilson told IBJ.
Indiana Republicans have better luck running for governor or a statewide seat, rather than fighting for a countywide position in one of the state’s bluest counties. Wilson said this may make it seem like a waste of resources to run for Indy mayor.
Elsener is hopeful.
“There are certainly people that are making the rounds and looking at it and having the right conversations and, you know, right now, people are really focused on the midterms and rightfully so,” Elsener said.
Hogsett hasn’t announced his political intentions for 2023 yet. If he doesn’t run for reelection, Wilson said it would be the “classic election opportunity” and that the Marion County Republican Party is likely already planning for the possibility.
“They would want to be able to get that message and that announcement out immediately afterwards,” Wilson told IBJ. “So you’re kind of taking that air and sucking it up out of the room in favor of your party and it’s a conversation piece.”
Wilson also said a party switch is usually easier when the incumbent has a vulnerability. When former mayor Greg Ballard beat incumbent Democrat Bart Peterson in 2007, it was due in part to a huge property tax hike. Now, Republicans hoping to take Hogsett’s role may latch onto crime-fighting as an issue.
Elsener said finding the right candidates often involves approaching leaders and asking if they’d consider running, as was the case for Marion County Prosecutor candidate Cyndi Carrasco. Merritt and Elsener both pointed to Carrasco as an example of a strong countywide GOP candidate.
Wilson said Carrasco’s race against Democratic incumbent Ryan Mears this fall could be serving as a sort of proxy for the 2023 mayoral election. If she wins, it could be a huge signifier that Indianapolis could have a Republican mayor, Wilson said.
Elsener didn’t offer up any potential Republican candidates. But Merritt had two suggestions: Ballard and Abdul-Hakim Shabazz of IndyPolitics.org.
Ballard couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. Shabazz wouldn’t dismiss the possibility.
“I’d be less than honest if I said I wasn’t thinking about it,” Shabazz told IBJ. He also said he’s working on persuading “the most important voter in Indianapolis,” his wife.
Regardless of party, Merritt said you really have to want to see change in Indianapolis to launch a mayoral campaign.
“It’s why I took the opportunity to—not ruin—but put chaos in my life for ten months and it was all worth it,” Merritt told IBJ.