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Dominant Indiana GOP taking aim at big cities

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INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Democrats will be facing an existential election this November. Already purged from rural areas and many small to medium-sized cities, holding no Statehouse constitutional offices, only two of 11 federal offices, and with superminority status in the General Assembly, the party has been relegated to the state’s big cities and college towns.

Now, Republicans will be taking aim at Indiana’s biggest two cities, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, where incumbent Democrats fit the description of “embattled.”

In Indianapolis, self-funding Republican mayoral nominee Jefferson Shreve will take on two-term Democrat Mayor Joe Hogsett, who dispatched state Rep. Robin Shackleford, 58%-38% on Tuesday. The fact that 42% of Democrats didn’t vote for the mayor has Hoosier Republicans licking their chops. They point to Republican Greg Balllard’s 2007 upset for Mayor Bart Peterson as a historic parallel as well as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s primary loss in February, largely based on the crime issue.

Shreve spent more than $2 million after filing his candidacy right at the filing deadline last February. He described Indianapolis as a “jewel” of a city that has been damaged by a rampant murder rate, high crime and a lack of cops. Shreve said his candidacy was “not a business decision; this is a decision from the heart. I’m running for mayor as a Republican and it’s gonna be tough. We live in a Democratic city. I’m not fooling myself, I understand the challenge. In my heart, I am convinced I can bring something better and bolder than what we have today.”

Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer said, “We’re looking forward to partnering with Jefferson and his team over the next few months and helping to deliver much-needed change in Indianapolis.”

Democratic Party Vice Chair and Marion County Democratic Chairwoman Myla Eldridge said, “Jefferson Shreve’s message is already falling short. After spending more than $2 million on Trump-style ads promoting his right-wing agenda, less than 30,000 Republican ballots were cast on Election Day compared to a historic 45,000 Democratic ballots. Jefferson’s platform may resonate with hardcore conservatives, but it’s clear Indianapolis voters aren’t interested.”

In Fort Wayne, four-term Democrat Mayor Tom Henry will face the only Republican ever to beat him. That occurred in 2003 when Republican Tom Didier upset him by 172 votes to win the city council seat Henry had held for 20 years. Henry recovered, winning the mayor’s office in 2007.

On Tuesday, Henry easily dispatched a little-known Democrat challenger, Jorge Fernandez, with 78% of the vote. It’s his first public test since being arrested on a DUI last October. He pleaded guilty in November.

Councilman Didier, who defeated Councilman Jason Arp 64-33% on Tuesday in the GOP primary, smells blood in the water. “Now I’ve got to get checkmate, I feel very confident,” Didier told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “I really believe the voters are ready for a change.”

Henry said his family and the Didiers have known each other for a long time and expects a donnybrook. “I think it’ll be a very lively campaign,” he said. “Aggressive, but in a positive way.”

Indiana Democrats have other potential challenges. They have seen the GOP encroach in areas where it once dominated, including southern Lake County and St. Joseph County, where all three county commissioners are Republican.

South Bend Mayor James Mueller defeated Councilman Henry Davis Jr. with 68%. South Bend Tribune columnist Jack Colwell explained, “Davis had to top 30% to show he had any significant impact. He just reached that. But he fell short of the 40% that would have signaled Mueller was vulnerable for a possible fall upset by Republican challenger Desmont Upchurch.”

In Anderson, Democrat Mayor Thomas Broderick defeated Councilman Rodney Chamberlain by a mere 32 votes and faces Republican Jon Bell, who won his primary by just four votes. Republican Kevin Smith won the Anderson mayor’s office twice, in 2003 and 2011, before Broderick defeated him in 2015.

Indiana Democrat Chairman Mike Schmuhl said after the November 2022 elections, “Indiana Democrats laid the groundwork in 2021 and 2022, and now it’s time to crisscross our state even more, build up our party from the grassroots, elect city leaders in 2023.”

There may be some opportunities for Democrats as well.

There will be an open seat in Evansville, where Republican Mayor Lloyd Winnecke is retiring. He and his wife, Carol McClintock, recruited and helped newcomer Natalie Rascher win a decisive primary against Vanderburgh County Commissioner Cheryl Musgrave by 1,500 votes. Rascher will face Democrat Stephanie Terry in November.  Democrats control seven of nine Evansville Council seats.

Another open seat comes in Carmel. Republican Mayor Jim Brainard did not seek another term. Councilwoman Sue Finkam won the three-way race with 36% of the vote and will face Democrat Miles Nelson in November. “We knew we had to be scrappy and tough and resilient and not back down from a fight,” Finkam said. “They underestimated us at every turn.”

Nelson told a gathering of 150 Democrats, “As we move toward the November election, I’m ready to continue engaging voters in our city on how we build an administration that’s responsive to their needs, transparent about our spending and priorities.”

In Terre Haute, Republican Mayor Duke Bennett is seeking a record-tying fifth term and will face Democrat Brandon Sakbun, who upset Tom Goodwin on Tuesday with 54%. Goodwin, running as an independent in 2019, came within 213 votes of upsetting Bennett.

 

The columnist is managing editor of Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs at StateAffairs.com/pro/Indiana. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.

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