Lack Of Competitive Politics Now Hitting City Halls
Indiana’s political scene is in distinct decline. Our congressional races are no longer competitive in General Elections, whereas in past decades there would be half a dozen or so of seat changes between Republicans and Democrats. Since the 2011 reapportionment, not a single congressional incumbent has been upset.
Our General Assembly has become lop-sided. For the first time since the Democrat/Republican two-party system took root in 1856, one party (the Republicans) have had super majorities in both the House and Senate since the 2014 election. That’s an unprecedented five election cycles, and counting. The districts are so unbalanced that I will be amazed if this doesn’t continue until the 2031 maps.
We’ve seen the constitutional Statehouse races become dominated by Republicans, with the last Democrat victory there coming in 2012. We’ve watched the GOP dominate at the county level, with Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer telling me that his party controls about 90% of county courthouse offices.
Now we are watching this lack of a robust election races coming to city halls across the state.
What jumps out after the Feb. 4 filing deadline is how many uncontested mayoral races there are during this 2023 cycle, including cities like Kokomo and Elkhart that have had competitive races in recent cycles. There are at least 35 cities where only Republican candidates have filed, including Jeffersonville, Noblesville, Bedford and Columbus. There are 10 cities where only Democrats have filed for mayor, including Hammond, Elkhart, Lafayette, West Lafayette.
When I was a reporter at the Elkhart Truth, the one guaranteed election cycle which would be interesting was the mayoral one, where Democrats and Republicans routinely traded that office. In 2019, Democrat Rod Roberson succeeded Republican Tim Neese. He followed Democrat Dick Moore. In 1999, Republican Dave Miller upset five-term mayor Jim Perron by 1,400 votes.
In Kokomo, Democrat Greg Goodnight won the mayoral election in 2007 and held the post for three terms. In 2019, Republican Tyler Moore defeated Democrat Abbie Smith with just under 70% of the vote. With the 2023 election filing deadline last Friday, there are only two Democrat council candidates, and none for Kokomo mayor or city clerk.
Unless a party slates a candidate by noon July 3, this means that Republican incumbent mayors Mike Moore in Jeffersonville, Dave Wood in Mishawaka and Democrat incumbents Tony Roswarski in Lafayette, Rod Roberson in Elkhart and Tom McDermott in Hammond will have no challengers.
The situation in West Lafayette is intriguing. Four-term incumbent Republican Mayor John Dennis is not seeking reelection and has endorsed Democrat Erin Easter. She is the only mayoral candidate filed.
According to independent journalist Dave Bangert, who published at the Based in Lafayette substack site, Mayor Dennis pushed Easter to run and introduced her at her campaign announcement. There are rumblings about Republicans slating someone after the primary. West Lafayette has been “hard blue” since 2016, outside of Dennis, who is Republican in name only.
When Gov. Eric Holcomb gave Mayor Dennis a Sagamore of the Wabash honor, Dennis dead-panned, “Leave us alone,” before launching into a discussion about cooperation and faith in each other in ways that didn’t lean on party affiliation. Dennis later said he didn’t “understand that horse and elephant thing very much.” Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski, a Democrat, reminded him it was donkey for Democrats, not a horse. “Really? It is an elephant, though, right?” Dennis said.
The irony is that while Indiana is losing its competitive political dynamic at the federal, state and local levels, there is a move afoot to politicize school board races.
According to the Associated Press, Indiana Republicans forged ahead Wednesday with a proposal that would upend the current nonpartisan school board elections across the state despite opponents arguing the change would further inject politics into local schools. The Indiana House Elections Committee voted 6-4 along party lines to endorse a bill to establish a system allowing a decision by each of the state’s nearly 300 school districts on whether to require candidates to declare a political party. Each district’s decision would be made through either a voter referendum or school board vote. It would be up to those votes whether candidates would be required to win a party’s May primary in order to appear on the November general election ballot.
During testimony, State Rep. Alan Morrison (R-Brazil) said it’s about local control. “There are some communities that want this and there are some communities that don’t,” Morrison said, according to Indiana Public Media. “Through this amendment, they will be able to make that choice.”
State Rep. Tonya Pfaff (D-Terre Haute) said the entire concept is unnecessary. “I’ve not had any constituent come up and say that they thought this was a good idea, either local control or period,” Indiana Public Media quoted Pfaff as saying.
What we are witnessing here in this era is a one-party dominance is the loss of political discourse. This comes while there is push by General Assembly lawmakers to begin the instruction of civics into our high schools. In the old days, that meant participating in dynamic General Election races between two major parties in three out of every four Novembers.
We’re losing that. I’m not sure where all of this will lead us.
The columnist is managing editor of Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs at StateAffairs.com/pro/Indiana. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.