By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

November 10, 2023

Determining whether Tuesday’s election outcomes across Indiana were better for the Republicans or Democrats depends on who is doing the analysis.

The Indiana Republican Party sent an email to its supporters after the results had been tallied and touted the “record number” of 76 GOP mayors elected statewide, including the 14 mayor’s offices that were flipped from Democratic to Republican.

“Republicans are winning,” Pete Seat, vice president of the Bose Public Affairs Group and former executive director of strategic communications and talent development for the Indiana Republican Party, said. “Republicans are maintaining … these mayoral seats – flipping 14 mayoral offices – because voters are supportive of what those elected are doing and are rewarding what those elected officials are doing, or, in the case of these flips, were unhappy with what was happening in their communities and wanted a change.”

The Indiana Democratic Party is celebrating mayoral wins in many of the state’s largest cities, including Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett and Fort Wayne mayor Tom Henry winning historic third and fifth terms, respectively. Also, the Democrats are trumpeting the eight mayoral offices they flipped, including Evansville and Terre Haute.

“Indiana Democrats have wind in their sails after a solid election night,” Indiana Democratic Party chairman Mike Schmuhl said in a press release. “Many of our candidates won at various levels and in different parts of the state. Indiana made history by electing three Black female mayors – one in northern Indiana, central Indiana, and southern Indiana. In addition we built on our foundation of success by reelecting Mayors Joe Hogsett in Indianapolis, Tom Henry in Fort Wayne and James Mueller in South Bend.”

Seat brushed off the Democratic mayoral victories.

He said Evansville mayor-elect Stephanie Terry was helped to victory by the Libertarian candidate who captured 12% of the votes – hurting the Republican mayoral candidate.

Also, he pointed to Democrats failing to maintain any foothold in the suburbs north of Indianapolis. He said Democrats were “pounding their chest” after their candidate, Emily Styron, won the 2019 mayoral election in Zionsville, but she did not run again and the Republican John Stehr ran unopposed in Tuesday’s general election. Moreover, he said, Democrats “were spinning yarns” about Hamilton County starting to lean in their direction, but the Republicans made almost a clean sweep of every office on the ballot in that county Tuesday.

“Democrats are going to hang their hat on holding a few of the larger cities and even flipping a few,” Seat said. “But they’re ultimately consolation prizes. This is still a Republican state and I think the results (from Tuesday) demonstrate that.”

Tim Henderson, senior strategist with Agency Strategies and former executive director of the Indiana State Democratic Party, pointed to population totals. He presented data that showed the cities flipped by the Republicans had a combined population of 200,000, while the cities the Democrats flipped has a combined population of 320,000.

“All these municipal races are a little different. They have their own local flavor and their own candidates,” Henderson said. “I think, in general, all the candidates that won they did raise enough resources to get their message out and to execute their plans. But they’re all a little different. All these local races are local, I guess, for lack of a better word, and they’re all a little different with different candidate dynamics.”

Varied results

In Marion and Hamilton counties, the Democrats and Republicans, respectively, were able to retain their control of municipal government.

Hogsett captured 59.4% of the vote, easily defeating Republican Jefferson Shreve in an expensive mayoral race. Also, the Democrats kept their supermajority on the Indianapolis City-County Council although they did lose the District 23rd seat to Republican Derek Cahill.

In his victory speech, Hogsett reiterated that he ran for a third term because he still sees work that has to be done.

“Because there are guns to get of our streets, there is affordable housing to build, there are students to support, there are small businesses to empower,” Hogsett said.

With Jim Brainard deciding not to run for a eighth term, the Carmel mayor’s race raised the hopes of Democrats to make inroads into Hamilton County, but Republican Sue Finkam handily defeated Democrat Miles Nelson, winning 57.3% of the vote. The race became combative when, during an Oct. 2 debate, Finkam declined to denounce the Hamilton County Moms for Liberty chapter, after they quoted Adolf Hitler in a newsletter.

“I thought this election would be about the best way to lead the city, but it turned into something louder, nastier, and negative when my opponent attacked me and painted Carmel in a negative light nationally,” Finkam said during her victory speech.

The strength of the GOP in Hamilton County was illuminated across the ballot Tuesday. Republican mayors Scott Fadness in Fishers, Chris Jensen in Noblesville and Scott Willis in Westfield all ran unopposed.  Also, Republicans won every city clerk and city judge race and lost only two out of a total of 37 council seats. Democrats Anita Joshl won the Carmel City Council West District with 52.5% of the vote and Bill Stuart won the Fishers City Council Southwest District with 50.7% of the vote.

Democratic mayoral victories in Fort Wayne and Evansville produced different results down ballot.

Democrat Stephanie Terry was elected as the first Black woman mayor of Evansville with 48.6% of the vote. Also Democrats swept the city council with the exception of Republican Angela Koehler Lindsey, who ran unopposed in the fifth ward.

Henry, who pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle while intoxicated endangering a person in October 2022, won the Fort Wayne mayor’s race with 59.1% of the vote. However, the city council remained firmly in Republican control with the GOP winning six seats and the Democrats capturing three.

Angola elected Dave Martin, the first Republican mayor in 32 years, and Greencastle elected Lynda Dunbar, the first female and the first Republican mayor in 38 years. North Vernon, Hobart and Plymouth all switched to Democrats for mayor, electing R. Shawn Gerkin, John Huddlestun and Robert Listenberger, respectively.

Two state legislators were also running in mayoral races in two different cities and posted two different outcomes. In Gary, Democratic state Sen. Eddie Melton won with 95.1% of the vote, while Republican state Rep. Ed Clere lost in New Albany, capturing 47.8% of the vote.

For the candidates who won the mayoral races, Henderson said the hard work is just beginning. They will be recognized by their constituents all over the community and get pulled aside to hear a complaint or discuss a new idea.

“I think being a mayor, or even a city councilor, is difficult just because you’re never really off,” Henderson said. “Everyone’s going to have a complaint about a pothole or trash not being picked up or whatnot. I commend everybody that does it because it takes a lot of work.”

Increasing diversity

Democrats and Republicans also boasted about their efforts to improve diversity among elected officials.

The Indiana Republican Party championed the historic wins by Ronald Morrell Jr., who was elected the first Black mayor of Marion, and Tiffanie Ditlevson, who won an at large seat on the Fishers City Common Council. Both are graduates of the GOP’s Indiana Diversity Leadership Series, which is a seminar and leadership training program designed to cultivate minority Republican leaders across the state.

Also, Hoosier Women Forward, a leadership training program for Democratic women, had 18 alumnae on municipal ballots around Indiana and 12 of them or 66% won their elections. In particular, HWF touted the victory of Deb Whitfield who became the first Black woman to be elected as the mayor for the city of Lawrence.

“(Tuesday’s) electoral successes reinforce what we’ve long known, that in both urban and rural areas, Hoosiers voters respond to candidates who are focused on the issues affecting Hoosiers,” Elise Shrock, HWF board chair, said in a press release. “Hoosier Women Forward helps develop leadership qualities in women who reflect those Hoosier values.”

Foreshadowing 2024?

Democrats and Republicans did share one point of agreement – the 2023 election results do not provide any insight into what will happen in 2024, when Hoosiers will select their governor and state legislator along with casting votes for the U.S. President and Congress.

Henderson reiterated extrapolating any overriding message from Tuesday’s result is difficult because municipal races are so individual. They each have their own flavor and the candidates tend to be more known to the constituents, he said.

“I think at the municipal level, a lot of these races aren’t necessarily partisan a lot of time because, especially in the smaller places, everybody kind of knows everybody,” Henderson said. “I’m a firm believer that a lot of these municipal races just come down to local dynamics with candidates and kind of what’s going on. They don’t seem to be as partisan to me as some of the other races a lot of the times.”

Seat echoed Henderson, saying municipal races focus on issues that are “very, very close to home” and tend to be  more personal because the candidates know a lot of the voters in the community.

Seat was also hesitant to make predictions about the 2024 elections based on the outcomes of the municipal races.

“There’s an entire year between now and then so that’s one thing, but the difference in Indiana is the consistency of Republicans winning elections,” Seat said. “So that’s what you can look to and say there’s a pattern, there’s a pattern of victory, there’s a pattern of winning and I think that portends very positively to what will occur next year. I don’t know anyone who seriously believes that a Democrat is going to win a statewide election in Indiana or a congressional seat that they don’t already hold.”

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

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